Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 2:38 pm | Fair 70º


Robert Bernstein: Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert Uses Humor to Drive Home Science of Happiness

What makes you happy? Harvard University professor and former high school dropout Daniel Gilbert made it clear that you may be wrong about what makes you happy!

He packed the house at UC Santa Barbara last week with his Sage talk, dryly titled “Some Problems in Human Prospection.”

Take four examples of events that could happen to you:

» You win the lottery

» You get fired

» You have a baby

» You lose your eyesight

We all know which two are the good ones. And we all know how we would feel at the moment these events happened.

But the surprise is that six months after these events, he says, they all have about the same effect on our happiness: About none at all!

Why are we so wrong at predicting our own happiness? Gilbert attributes it to our ability to simulate. We are able to run mental simulations to know certain things well.

Ben & Jerry’s does not have to test-market Liver and Onions ice cream to know this probably won’t work. Mental simulations can work in many cases.

But Gilbert identified four ways in which our mental simulations are flawed. They are:

» Unrepresentative

» Essentialized

» Truncated

» Presentist

He went on to explain each of these flaws and how they get us in trouble.


People waiting on a Boston subway platform were asked how they would feel if they missed their train. The experiment was done in three ways with three different groups of subjects. They were first asked:

» Remember what happened one time when you missed the train?

» The worst time when you missed your train?

» Three times when you missed your train?

It turns out “one time” gets the same answer as “the worst time.” When asked for three cases, the first one is the worst; the others were not so bad. They caught the next train and there was no problem.

We have lots of events in memory. When we recall example events, we remember the least likely, most extreme events, not the most typical events. We remember both the best and the worst most easily.

This causes us to think of 9/11 when we think of terror attacks, even though most terror attacks are in other countries and most destroy property, not people.


Imagine going to the dentist. You think of sitting in a chair with people fooling with your teeth. But no one ever talks about parking, Highlights for Children, the receptionist smiling or dentist office music. Those are peripheral details.

But your dentist experience may be better if you got a space in front, there were good magazines and music, and you got a date with the receptionist.

David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman (1998) found that Californians and Midwesterners both thought that living in Southern California was better than living in the Midwest. But actual levels of happiness were the same for both groups.

People think of surfing and vistas, the essential aspects of California living. They ignore all the things that exist in California as much or more than in the Midwest: Mothers in law, traffic, getting the flu.

Adding “inessential” details gives more accuracy.

Likewise with asking how you will feel after your team or your candidate wins or loses. Losers were happier than they predicted and winners were less happy than they predicted.

People will make much more accurate predictions if they are asked to name four other things they will be doing after they win or loss. Maybe they will be studying for an exam, mowing the lawn or attending a friend’s wedding.


Some psychological processes don’t happen at the beginning. If a person goes blind they will be unhappy on the first day. On Day 397, not so much. They imagine becoming blind, not being blind. We adapt.

Our mental simulations consist of clips from the imagined movie of life, often more from the beginning, not representative samples.


Science fiction is full of anachronistic combinations of futurism and the realities of the writer’s own time. Gilbert showed 1950s images of a homemaker dropping off her husband at a rocket ship on his way to work. And he is smoking.

When you go shopping you are actually predicting what you will want for the next week. A study compared four conditions of shoppers: Those with and without a list (most shoppers use no list.) And those who were hungry or full when they went grocery shopping.

Researchers secretly worked with the store to get actual purchase receipts. Those without a list spent 50 percent on unplanned food if hungry and 30 percent on unplanned food if full.

But with a list the numbers were 35 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Having the list mattered more than being hungry.

Gilbert showed a photo of himself with a crazy 1970s hairdo. He thought at the time that would always be in fashion. People over-weight their present feelings.

They think they will change very little over the next 10 years. Yet they agree that they have changed a lot over the past 10 years. This holds for their friendships, taste in music, fashion, etc. And it holds as much for 58 year olds as for 28 year olds.

Amos Tversky and Dale Griffin (1991) asked how people would feel about two job situations. Job 1 pays $100,000 a year, but your co-workers make $110,000. Job 2 pays $90,000, but your co-workers make $80,000.

People think Job 2 will make them happier. Reality favors Job 1 because people live in the actual present, not in imagined comparisons.

People were shown a bag of potato chips and asked to imagine how much they will enjoy them. Two groups, two rooms. In one room there “happened to be” cans of Spam, haggis and sardines. In the other room there “happened to be” chocolate candy bars.

The chocolate room people expected modest chip enjoyment. The Spam room people expected a lot of chip enjoyment. They were making relative judgments.

When the two groups ate the chips? Their enjoyment was about equal. Again, people live in the present moment.

Gilbert reminds us of the final scene of Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart tells Ingmar Bergman she has to go off with her husband and not stay with him. Or else she will regret it. Gilbert says actually if she stayed with Bogart she would not regret it. Regret is usually less of a problem than we predict.

So, what is to be done? Can we imagine our future happiness better so that we make better decisions? No, you cannot get better at imagining.

Is there an answer? Actually there is. But he says almost no one wants to do what he has shown works.

The answer: Surrogation. If you want to know whether you should do something, find someone who is already doing that thing. A surrogate. And see if they are happy doing it.

People laugh when they hear this. Ask others? How will that tell me how I will feel?

Gilbert’s lab set up a speed dating clinic for students. Group 1: Woman 1 dates a guy then reports her enjoyment. Then Woman 2 gets info about the guy’s classes and interests. This is the Simulation condition.

Group 2 is the Surrogation condition: Woman 2 knows nothing about the guy. She only is told the experience of Woman 1 with him. It turns out this gives better predictions for Woman 2.

Why? All women want about the same thing. No one wants the serial killer.

You would think women would learn from this. They don’t. In the very next round women are offered a chance to know information about the next guy or what the previous woman thought of him. Most choose the former.

We have an illusion of diversity. We notice what makes us unique. Yes, we have different tastes. Gilbert hates roller coasters and his wife loves them. But if a Martian studied one human he would know 90 percent of what there is to know about humans.

Vintners know huge differences between grapes. Actually, they are all grapes. Not that different.

By the way, is it true that nothing makes a difference in creating happiness? Going blind, becoming paralyzed, winning the lottery don’t seem to matter in the long run.

Yes, one thing affects happiness: Having children. In general, those who have children are less happy. If you don’t believe him, go to Walmart and see who is smiling, the people with or without kids.

Before attending the talk I read Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. As with his talk, the book is full of valuable information that is utterly counter-intuitive. And, as with his talk, it is hilariously funny. I highly recommend it!

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.

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