Predicting Happiness

Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, University of Virginia psychologist Tim Wilson, Carnegie-Mellon economist George Loewenstein, and Princeton Psychologist Dan Kahneman have been studying the question: “What makes us really happy or sad, and how do we actually feel after the experience?”  They feel that almost all of our decisions in life are based on the way we think we will feel after the experience.

Imagine, for a moment, how happy the following might make you feel:

  • Buying a new car.
  • Remodeling your kitchen.
  • Having that seafood from online fishmonger uk, steak, or cheeseburger for dinner tonight.
  • Making huge returns in your investment accounts.
  • Landing that job you’ve been working so hard on for so long.
  • Your football team wins the big game.
  • Hitting the lottery.

On the flip side, how would you feel if:

  • You lost a relationship with your partner.
  • Broke your leg in the middle of the summer.
  • Saw your job slipping away because of failure on your part.
  • Your football team loses the big game.
  • You lost a family member.

You’d be wrong to think that they’d make you as happy, or that you’d be as devastated, and for as long, as you imagine. At least that’s what Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, University of Virginia psychologist Tim Wilson, Carnegie-Mellon economist George Loewenstein, and Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman maintain.

These men have endeavored to ask one simple question: How do we predict what will make us happy or unhappy — and how do we feel after the actual experience?

They have begun to question the decision-making process that shapes our sense of well-being – How we forecast our feelings, and whether those predictions match our future emotional states

According to Gilbert, Wilson, Loewenstein, and Kahneman, almost all of our actions — our decision to buy jewelry, to have children, to buy the big house or work exhaustively for more money — are based on our predictions of the emotional after-effects of these decisions and events.

What have these predictions studies found?

  • We understand what we want and are adept at improving our well-being.
  • We falter when it comes to imagining how we will feel about something in the future.
  • We overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions to future events.

Gilbert and Lowenstein characterize this as “impact bias” – the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience; ”impact” meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and ”bias” our tendency to err.

Sounds a lot like expectation to me.

What does this mean in practical terms? According to the New York Times:

“Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won’t turn out that way. And a new plasma television? You may have high hopes, but the impact bias suggests that it will almost certainly be less cool, and in a shorter time, than you imagine. Worse, Gilbert has
noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure. He calls this ”miswanting.”

”The average person says, ‘I know I’ll be happier with a Porsche than a Chevy,’ ” Gilbert explains. ” ‘Or withLinda rather than Rosalyn. Or as a doctor rather than as a plumber.’ That seems very clear to people. The problem is, I can’t get into medical school or afford the Porsche. So for the average person, the obstacle between them and happiness is actually getting the futures that they desire. But what our research shows — not just ours, but Loewenstein’s and Kahneman’s — is that the real problem is figuring out which of those futures is going to have the high payoff and is
really going to make you happy.”

I think Gilbert said it best: ”You know, the Stones said, ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ ” I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is you can’t always know what you want.”

And therein lies the rub ..

“One can bring no greater reproach against a man than to say that he does not set sufficient value upon pleasure, and there is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him. To know this is not easy, and how to extend our knowledge of it is the highest and the most neglected of all arts and branches of education.” –Samuel Butler

Thanks to Global Citizenship in a Virtual World for including this post in the Carnival of Education.

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