Happiness is Scientific… Who Knew?

by David B. Bohl

Let’s say you eat out at your favorite Chinese restaurant every Friday night. You have cashew chicken every Friday. Your spouse has a different dish almost ever week, though occasionally choosing a previous dish again, after a few weeks.

Your spouse says, “You should try something different.”

You reply, “I like cashew chicken.”

“But variety is the spice of life.”

Who’s right? Well, you both are in theory, but according to Dr. Daniel Gilbert, Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory, you are correct in this situation.

Dr. Gilbert, who studies happiness as a science, has found that if you separate your visits to the Chinese restaurant, you’ll be happier eating your favorite meal each time, but if you were to eat there three times in one day, for instance, variety would make you happier.

Dr. Gilbert’s studies are very complex and difficult to summarize quickly, but the most significant thing Dr. Gilbert has to say on the science of happiness is that it does exist.

Most people think happiness is absolutely subjective and thus impossible to study, but Dr. Gilbert maintains that happiness, while it is subjective, can be measured – the requirement for scientific study – as easily as vision. To prove his point he explains that vision can only be measured by an optometrist’s careful observation of a patient’s reports as to which lens is clearer during the examination.

Careful observation and reporting of how people actually feel – I feel happier now, I felt happier yesterday when I was at the concert – can, and do, enable scientists to measure happiness, and to study how and when people are happy and unhappy.

One of the most important findings Dr. Gilbert has made so far is that people never react as strongly as they think they will. Nothing ever makes us as happy as we believe it will, but by the same token, things do not upset us as much as we think they will, either.

Dr. Gilbert refers to this as “impact bias,” and gives an example of the 2004 election. Most Democrats in Dr. Gilbert’s study said that they would be “devastated” if George W. Bush won the 2004 election. When their emotions were measured after the election, most were not as upset as they had predicted. However, weeks later, they remembered being more upset – in fact, devastated – than they were.

Not only do we not know how things will make us feel in the future, it appears we do not know how things did make us feel in the past. Most of us know that we cannot adequately remember physical pain, but the idea that we cannot adequately remember emotions is new to us.

New, but, according to Dr. Gilbert, scientifically proven. At this point there is no real way of knowing how far off our predictions are in advance, and most of us do not measure and re-measure our emotions in order to see how far off they were from our recollection.

But the very existence of a science of happiness sets the stage for great advances in emotional health and well-being.

How can you take advantage of this knowledge?

Try keeping a journal of what you expect to feel after certain events, and how you feel afterward.

When you are worried about a specific event, adjust your worries downward. If you worry you’ll lose your job, change your expectation to being disciplined.

Measure your emotions on a regular basis to see how happy you usually are and when that seems to get better or worse.