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The Pursuit of Happiness

10 February 2015


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Why don’t we know what will make us happy

Happiness comes when you get what you want.  The problem is that this never happens, at least in this lifetime. Hence in the last 20 years, psychologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral economists have begun to study the causes of human happiness.

Dr. Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, tries to expound the clinical truths about “The Pursuit to Happiness” in one of the sessions of the 2015 Government Summit.

After the advent of the agricultural, industrial and technological revolution, it may be assumed that people have everything they want. And yet, they are still unhappy.

“How can we be unhappy when we get exactly what we were aiming for? It must be that we aim for the wrong things,” Gilbert said.

People don’t know what will make them happy because the two sources of happiness – their own imagination (brains) and what their society (moms) tells them – are both flawed. Waves and waves of modernisation have allowed us to create simulators that can predict future failures and preferences. However unlike flight simulators, life simulators fail reliably, routinely, and unpredictably.

Gilbert presented a study, which asked 18-year-old individuals on how much will they change in the next 10 years. Most of the respondents said, not much. The same study asked 28-year-old individuals how much did they change in the last 10 years and the response was, a lot. The same questions were repeated across all age samples and the study concluded that people’s brains have underestimated the change that they would undergo over the next years or decades.

In another study, respondents said they would pay $120 to see their current favourite star in 10 years time, but would only pay $80 to see their favourite star 10 years ago.

What does this have to do with happiness? Gilbert explained that because we don’t know how much we will change, we design futures that indulge present preferences rather than future ones.
“We are citizens of now, prisoners of the moment, and we find it impossible to extricate ourselves from the present when we try to imagine the future,” he said.

Another source of unhappiness is that we listen to what the culture tells us, and this may not be necessarily right. 

Flashing advertisements from the 1950’s and 60’s, Gilbert highlighted that during those days, his mom was looking at commercials that encouraged women to smoke for pleasure, enticed carbonated drink intake during childhood and promoted watching TV as the ideal family bonding time.

“People learn not only from their own experience but also from an army of people who give us cultural wisdom. We are social animals and culture can be wrong,” he said.

Conventional wisdom says marriage, money and children are the ultimate source of happiness. However, a number of data proves that attaining these three does not necessarily translate to happiness.

Studies presented by Gilbert showed that marriage is a source of happiness only if it’s a good one; otherwise it becomes a source of unhappiness. “It isn’t marriage that makes us happy but happy marriage, which is why divorce improves happiness among those who seek it,” he said.

Money is a source of happiness mostly to those who have none or little of it but acquiring more wealth for those who already have a lot makes a little difference. While the assumption says there is great happiness in having children, one study shows non-parents are happier than those who have children.

“It doesn’t mean that kids are bad, it just means that we aren’t getting the happiness from them than what we thought we should,” Gilbert said.

In conclusion, Gilbert said there is a role for science to understand what makes people happy. “Happiness is a question about facts, and science is the place we turn for facts,” he said. “I love my mother, but she is not the person I turn to when I want to know how cells divide or how stars are born, how viruses evolve or how airplanes stay aloft.”

So what can make people happy? The search continues.