You’re Not as Happy as You Think You Are, Behavioral Scientists Report


Marriage is like a sweater. A yellow sweater you bought, and couldn’t return. So says Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, and one of the 20 outrageously accomplished behavioral scientists who spoke at a 1-day summit at Stanford last week.

Gilbert studies happiness, not knitwear. And his main point is that we humans are terrible judges of what will make us happy, so we often end up dissatisfied with our choices after the fact. When we get locked into a decision, though, we tend to make the most of it, and come to love the things we’re stuck with much more than those that can be jettisoned easily.

At least, I think that’s what he was saying. The world seems to be awash these days with behavioral scientists who, having devised ingenious experiments and illuminating surveys, emerge with some new understanding of how our brains work. I’m not skeptical about the science, most of it anyway. But I never quite know what to do with it.

My reactions to the insights of social psychologists, behavioral economists, experimental sociologists and so on tend to fall into one of two camps: Often, they make me feel warmly justified by confirming previously held beliefs (too much choice is toxic) and justifying past decisions (marriage makes you happier). Otherwise, I’m left with no clear idea how to incorporate their conclusions into my life and work.

Gilbert, for example, has shown in a hundred ways that we humans tend to overestimate both the joy and the displeasure we’ll experience from possible future events. It’s interesting as all get out, in its mechanics and implications — and its evolutionary irony.

Our prognostications fail in part because we imagine future events as a moment, not over the full time we’ll experience them; and we think about what we’ll gain more than what we’ll lose through any decision even though, as Gilbert says, “every yes entails a no.” The ability to imagine future experiences and states of mind is one of our unique evolutionary endowments, yet it’s almost comically impaired. One of the greatest mental capacities our outrageously successful species possesses hardly works at all.

No wonder we’re so damned hard to live with, most of the time.

Which reminds me of that yellow sweater. There has to be some minimal threshold of non-obnoxiousness, surely, before the embrace-what-you-can’t-escape principle kicks in. I can’t see love getting off the ground if the sweater is too itchy to wear, or deepening over time if repeated washing shrinks it small enough to fit an organ grinder’s monkey.  And isn’t sticking with a bad fit, in relationships, a major cause of domestic violence, crushed dreams and acrimonious divorce? The original insight is fascinating, and makes sense. But you could use it to argue that everyone should get married immediately, or that no one should, ever.

I’m sure that the problem I sense lies not with behavioral science, but with the way my own brain encounters its conclusions. I’m too binary in my thinking, I imagine, my natural desire for crisp dichotomies of meaning and value ossified by too many years in the natural sciences.

Or maybe I’m just being willfully obtuse. Another of Gilbert’s revelations is that children do not make people happier. People with children can be plenty happy, of course, just as they can be miserable. But based on survey after survey, Gilbert says, the kids get neither the credit not the blame. Losing children you already have would be devastating. But both parents and people without kids report happiness levels that are just about the same.

And yet I wake up each day certain that I’m much happier with children than I would have been without. I believe it, easily, and with every fiber. But now I know that I’m wrong, and that it’s because my brain is so buggy it wouldn’t make it through quality control at a Foxconn factory. Am I really miserable, without knowing it? Or have I saddled myself with a couple of yellow sweaters I’m going to have to trick myself into loving, no matter how itchy they get?

Maybe, but I don’t care. You don’t need to be an expert on the psychology of climate change denial or creationism to know that the human brain is adept at ignoring whatever scientific evidence it chooses. I spend plenty of time dealing with and decrying the denial of science in politics and society. But on this one, I’m happy being the equivalent of a young-earth creationist. If my kids won’t make me happy, after all, maybe my denial will.


Image: Found on the internet, with no clear source. And yes, I know it’s not actually wearing a sweater, yellow or otherwise. Do you suppose it’s a tamarin?

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11 thoughts on “You’re Not as Happy as You Think You Are, Behavioral Scientists Report

  1. Oh, here’s a third reaction to behavioral science research: sometimes it’s just silly, silly crap. Here’s a fresh example, in which parents reported a “a lower sense of meaning in life” when researchers showed them a photo of cash at a children’s festival. The conclusion? “…affluence can compromise a central subjective benefit of parenting—a sense of meaning in life.” Sure, the rich are famously unsatisfied. But my guess is that those parents reported a loss of existential meaning simply because the researchers were wasting their time.

  2. There is some evidence that, if we can understand just how we tend to misconstrue the future, we can talk ourselves out of unrealistic expectations–and avoid disappointment. For example, almost all of us think we can get a lot more done than we ever could in fact, in the time we have available. This cognitive bias is so common that it has a name–the planning fallacy. By knowing this, we *should* be able to revise our expectations beforehand–and as a result plan better, and be happier with more outcomes.
    I agree with you about predicting (and finding) happiness. It’s much too complicated and varied–children do make some people miserable, and they delight others. My guess is that most are delighted some times and miserable others. Money makes us happier and happier until our basic+ needs are met, then not so much.
    Great post. Cheers, Wray

  3. Thanks, Wray. As my former editor, you know better than most just how susceptible I am to the planning fallacy! And as a fan of your work (“On Second Thought,” I know that you’re burdened by actually knowing and understanding this literature at a deep level. I wonder if there’s a “better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission” principle at work with the planning fallacy? I seem to find it easier (not easy) to deal with the impacts of over-planning than to anticipate the logjams and plan more modestly in advance. Then again, I may just be in the grips of “chowderhead syndrome.”

  4. Thing is, you can be able to identify the correct choice and feel unhappy in making it. If you feel happy in the exercise of prudence, I guess you’re set for life, but if prudence requires constant subversion of more resonant urges and desires, then foresight and a sense of prudence is a curse as well as a boon. There’s also the “better to have loved and lost…” concept, which is especially true if we can love losing. Picking always what’s best for happiness over the long run might deny you some spectacular short runs, even apart from the greater self actualization or whatever that may come from acting on your more basic desire.

  5. I think there is another interesting cognitive subject you’ve touched on here, that has to do more generally with scientific discoveries. It’s as if we expect new scientific information will substantially affect our choices and decisions, even how society will change. I’m thinking about fears about how evolution would supposedly undermine morality, for example, in Darwin’s time.

  6. Hi Thomas, thanks for a fun read. I’m jealous that you got to go the summit, it sounds like it was fantastic judging by the line up of speakers. It’s a beautiful place too, I used to spend a lot of time up on the hill when my graduate advisor was running things up there for a while.

    A couple things on Gilbert’s work. I think it’s really important to distinguish what he says about predictions about the future and about how happy we are in the present. Ironically, it’s precisely because we’re so good at convincing ourselves we love our itchy yellow sweater, as long as we can’t return it, that we’re can be so happy in a situation we would have predicted would make us miserable.

    Of course there are limits. If you vomit on your sweater and can’t get the smell out, you’re not going to continue wearing it happily convincing yourself you love the stench.

    So what do you do with that knowledge? Well, for one thing, stop spending so much time keeping your options open. We love to give ourselves a chance to change our minds, but usually we’re better off thinking through a decision and then making a call.

    Also, if you know you’re bad at predicting things, then you can put a little less faith in your predictions and go with something more useful. For example, Gilbert shows that if you’ve never had an experience before, let’s say you’ve never tried Thai food, you’re much better off asking someone who has tried it to tell you how much they liked it then trying to guess on your own. It’s counter-intuitive to the extent that we think we know our own preferences best, but often we’re better off just asking a random stranger.

    Getting back to the yellow sweater — I think I’m actually with you here when it comes to marriage or having kids. If you look around, there’s a pretty high divorce rate out there, which wouldn’t be the case if we could all blithely tell ourselves that we were happy no matter how reality looks. So there’s only so much the rationalization process can do.

    I feel that it’s very useful a lot of the time — if you’re happy with your marriage it’s not self-delusion, but you’re probably overlooking some of your partner’s down sides (actually there’s research by Sandra Murray and John Holmes that says that doing that is very good for relationships). So a little rationalization once in a while is actually a good thing and not something to try to eradicate.

    The same thing goes for kids. I think my kid is the best kid in the world. On some objective level I realize he’s not, but it sure feels that way. I’m not as familiar with the research on the (non) benefits of having kids, but I will say that it’s pretty hard to do randomized research on the subject. I find it pretty easy to believe that someone who finds out they can’t have kids can get over it and lead a fulfilling life, or that someone simply doesn’t want to have kids. But I find it a lot harder to believe that someone who wanted to have kids but never did would be just as happy not to have them. But then that may just be my bias talking.

  7. I gotta disagree. When you decide to be happy you will be & you will only ever be as happy as you think you are. The opposite is far too common because the same is true for sadness, they are decisions we make in deciding how we think & therefore live.

  8. It doesn’t follow at all that you in particular aren’t happier with children than you would be without. Just that, on average, having children doesn’t work as a way to become happier.

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