Oh, screw it all, then.
September 5, 2003 4:33 PM   Subscribe

The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. ''Things that happen to you or that you buy or own -- as much as you think they make a difference to your happiness, you're wrong by a certain amount. You're overestimating how much of a difference they make. None of them make the difference you think. And that's true of positive and negative events.''
posted by Tin Man (31 comments total)
That is to say, if Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine.

Well... suppose for a moment you've spent two years in modern society without a car that works, and a few months with no car at all. Suddenly, even a 97 Geo Prizm will indeed make you pretty happy. And I find that obtaining and using tools that enable me to make music often have a big lift when I use them. So I'm going to say that this whole anti-materialism aspect of these observations has its limits. Obtaining tools that make certain things easier (or even just possible) really does make a difference.

The basic premise of the article is good, tho'.
posted by weston at 4:45 PM on September 5, 2003

Dennis Prager has interesting things to say about placing your happiness in external objects (not only possessions, but people, expectations, etc) in his fine book Happiness is a Serious Problem.
posted by jonson at 4:53 PM on September 5, 2003

weston: So all us poor slobs who learned to ride a bike are just miserable creatures compared to the happy folks stuck in traffic that we pass by every morning? Wow, who knew?
posted by Space Coyote at 4:53 PM on September 5, 2003

This guy seems pretty happy (flash.)
posted by homunculus at 4:56 PM on September 5, 2003

Yes, but I now know that there are 5,896,824,512 people poorer than me. That's got to cheer me up a little, right? Right??

Interesting link, Tin Man. Thanks for posting it.
posted by anastasiav at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2003

Well, the overestimation of future happiness should count for something. Otherwise, there'd be a lot more miserable people around.
posted by attackthetaxi at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2003

I'll be honest and admit that I didn't read the entire article, but isn't this just saying (in far more words) that expectation doesn't always match reality and that often anticipation is better than realization?

I think my nine year old picked that up last week, this isn't exactly a paradigm shattering breakthrough. How many of us go through life deluding ourselves that we are protected from disappointment by expecting the worst all the while planning to be pleasantly surprised when it doesn't happen.
posted by cedar at 5:00 PM on September 5, 2003

But it can work both ways, Cedar. I would say that it's true on the whole that I have overestimated what things will mean to me, both good and bad. For example, my father died this year; it's the first death in my immediate family, so I have been both devastated and struck by how much "life goes on." My life feels pretty much the same, in spite of this awful loss that I knew was coming. On the other hand, I just bought digital cable, which I knew I would like, a lot, but wheee howdy am I enjoying those Music Choice channels. Wow! WAY more satisfaction than I had anticipated. Here's an instance where I underestimated how much I would like something. But either way, I got it wrong.
posted by JanetLand at 5:07 PM on September 5, 2003

As far as I'm concerned, this guy is the authority. Nice to see Harvard is catching up.
posted by muckster at 5:09 PM on September 5, 2003

Once again, when posting NYTimes stuff, use the google link.
posted by woil at 5:16 PM on September 5, 2003

cedar, the Loewenstein/Gilbert research is a bit more complicated than "expectation doesn't always match reality and often anticipation is better than realization." it's a more detailed investigation into all sorts of forecasting errors and why we make them, rather than just an attack on materialism and short-term pleasure. the concept of applying this research to institutional forecasting errors (i.e. governmental planning) is a very interesting concept.

fascinating stuff. thanks for the link.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:20 PM on September 5, 2003

this guy is the authority.

Here's a recent thread on why that guy is so happy.
posted by homunculus at 5:23 PM on September 5, 2003

The anticipation of the pleasure is part of the total payoff - the article didn't ask how his work deals with this.

Also unchallenged (in the piece): the postulate that people, for theoretical purposes, are simply rational, utilty-maximizing actors.

But he's doing great stuff. This was (I think) a very well done and suggestive piece of science journalism.

I liked the bit at the end where he waxed philosophical. It (the whole topic) puts one in mind of Nietzsche's writings on 'the value of error for life'.
posted by crunchburger at 5:28 PM on September 5, 2003

really interesting

and about material things and social class (how impoverished people's lives are actually improved dramatically and lastingly by more money and things, but once you've reached a (vague) middleclass standard the impact of more things or more money is greatly lessened, even if you think it's not): Isn't that more indicative of how we're all socialized to be consumers? I think we've been encouraged to have forecasting errors, and that our economy could be said to depend on it to a large extent...

Does this stuff hold true for different cultures and ways of life? Do members of amazonian or african tribes also continually make forecasting errors?
posted by amberglow at 5:37 PM on September 5, 2003

weston: So all us poor slobs who learned to ride a bike are just miserable creatures compared to the happy folks stuck in traffic that we pass by every morning? Wow, who knew?

Space Coyote: I've used a bicycle and public transportation around Southern California for a few months at a time at least twice in my life -- once living in Los Angeles 11 years ago, once living in Ventura County last year. There were days when I absolutely loved this, but sometimes there were an awful lot of things that I had trouble doing. Travelling to gig is harder without a vehicle (impossible, depending on your gear, but usually just hard). Dating someone who lives 45 miles away... when the buses and trains stop about 10:30 (and you're not staying the night). Looking for work when your contract runs out -- you want to cast a wide net, and be as time efficient as possible. None of these things may be essential to your life or everyone else's -- my guess is that you're doing this and find it quite satisfactory -- but there's a reason why motorized vehicles are one of the top discretionary purchases in the modern US.
posted by weston at 6:09 PM on September 5, 2003

I also want to add that I've long been skeptical of a basic premise of economic theory, and that is that people know how to maximize their own utility. I pointed this out to a prof once, and he said "Well, what's the alternative? To shape policy as if someone knows another's preferences better than they do?"

That point is well-taken, but he missed mine, which was essentially: if this is one of the basic principles of economics, and it's wrong, how can I expect economics to have any value as a predictive or even explanatory science?
posted by weston at 6:12 PM on September 5, 2003

I've used a bicycle and public transportation around Southern California for a few months at a time at least twice in my life -- once living in Los Angeles 11 years ago,

You lived on a bicycle in LA? Now that's taking your life into your hands.

I hear it's better to try that sort of thing in places where they understand what public transportation should be...
posted by namespan at 6:24 PM on September 5, 2003

"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." - Albert Camus (1913 - 1960)
posted by iamck at 6:31 PM on September 5, 2003

Epictetus on the good life.
posted by poopy at 6:42 PM on September 5, 2003

Interesting subject. What makes you happy, anyway?

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
-Albert Camus

Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.
-Mark Twain

A double bed
And a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor

-Morrissey, (Smiths) I Want The One I Can’t Have

Happiness is a how; not a what.
a talent, not an object.

-Hermann Hesse

Nothing is more fatal to happiness
than the remembrance of happiness.

-Andre Gide

Happiness is a Warm Gun
-Lennon/McCartney (Beatles)

We have no more right to consume happiness
without producing it than to
consume wealth without producing it.

-George Bernard Shaw

Happiness is an imaginary condition,
formerly often attributed to the dead,
now usually attributed by adults to children,
and by children to adults.

-Thomas Szasz

That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.
-Henry David Thoreau

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.
-John Milton

There are only two things to aim at in life:
First, to get what you want;
and after that , to enjoy it.
Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second.

-Logan Pearsall

Nine in the fifth place means:
The neighbor in the east who slaughters an ox
Does not attain as much real happiness
As the neighbor in the west
With his small offering.

-I Ching (Emperor Fu Hsi [?]; translation: Richard Wilhelm)

Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.

-Donovan, Happiness Runs

Shake Your Bag of Bones
-Andy Partridge (XTC)
posted by Shane at 7:53 PM on September 5, 2003

(Sorry for the Camus repeat, iamck.)
posted by Shane at 7:56 PM on September 5, 2003

What makes you happy, anyway?

beer, cigarettes and a reliable bowel movement.
posted by poopy at 8:14 PM on September 5, 2003

"What makes you happy, anyway?"

I don't know any more.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:31 PM on September 5, 2003

shane, you forgot this one
posted by amberglow at 8:32 PM on September 5, 2003

shane, you forgot this one

I forgot one? Oh, hell. Now I'm not happy.
posted by Shane at 8:39 PM on September 5, 2003

In the final analysis, your life would be different only if *you* are different. And very few people would do a seemingly simple exercise to change their life--an armchair exercise--once they realized that it meant *real* change.

This shows how really content people are with themselves. For after all, each of us is an artwork of our own making, and we have spent a lifetime on our singular masterpiece we call our life.

The exercise: imagine your life as a yardstick of linear time. On this yardstick are tiny events that you have selected as the "formative" events in your life, re-emphasized continually as your personal history, or biography, to yourself and others. But that selection is entirely voluntary. To re-define yourself, simply select different events.

For example, let us say you wish to be more athletic. Just pick out those times in your life when you were doing physical things, and think of them as "important" or "formative" events. Over and over again, redefining yourself as an athlete. You must let the events you currently emphasize fade into the background, superceded by these physical activities.
Soon you will start thinking athletic thoughts about your present, such as "I should exercise more". And in one fell swoop, with some effort, you should successfully modify your past, present and future--all at the same time. You will "think" yourself into a more athletic personna.

But do you really want to do this?
posted by kablam at 8:49 PM on September 5, 2003

He never once cited acquiring something and it's being a greater reward that predicted. Material happiness is never as good-emotional misery is never as bad, is the gist throughout. Even in this short thread folks have cited the opposite. This makes me think there's a strong bias deep in this guy which his academic cloistering has entombed.
posted by HTuttle at 9:50 PM on September 5, 2003

Ok, I'll be that guy:

Reading this made me feel really fucking smart.

When faced with a non-obvious choice with a large emotional component, I frequently imagine myself a meaningful time after each possibility, feeling out the choices from the other side, i.e. imagining its impact coming out from the glow of the event the choice leads to and back toward the baseline, instead of imagining the effect of going into the glow from my current baseline.

The article implies that few people do this, but also hints that it may be possible to teach people to do so, given demonstrations of the ability to learn from the experiences of other people facing the same choices they are facing. Maybe, with practice, most people could learn to make those predictions and improve their accuracy based on the observed difference between the predictions and the actual outcome.

Or maybe you're all doomed. Dunno.
posted by NortonDC at 10:03 PM on September 5, 2003

Blaise Pascal:

"All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves."

Here's to the quest for joy.
posted by aaronshaf at 12:09 AM on September 6, 2003

"At vero eos et accusamus et iusto odio dignissimos ducimus qui blanditiis praesentium voluptatum deleniti atque corrupti quos dolores et quas molestias excepturi sint occaecati cupiditate non provident, similique sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollitia animi, id est laborum et dolorum fuga. Et harum quidem rerum facilis est et expedita distinctio. Nam libero tempore, cum soluta nobis est eligendi optio cumque nihil impedit quo minus id quod maxime placeat facere possimus, omnis voluptas assumenda est, omnis dolor repellendus. Temporibus autem quibusdam et aut officiis debitis aut rerum necessitatibus saepe eveniet ut et voluptates repudiandae sint et molestiae non recusandae. Itaque earum rerum hic tenetur a sapiente delectus, ut aut reiciendis voluptatibus maiores alias consequatur aut perferendis doloribus asperiores repellat."

"On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains."
posted by namespan at 6:46 AM on September 6, 2003

I like best the wine which belongs to another.

Diogenes of Sinope
posted by y2karl at 7:12 AM on September 6, 2003

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