January 18, 2015

Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Think you know what makes you happy.

“One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and hold fast to the days...” - Willa Cather, "Le Lavandou"

Prospection - The act of looking forward in time or considering the future.

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. When people are asked to report how much they think about the past, present and future, they claim to think about the future the most. One of the main reason is merely thinking or imagining these possibilities is itself is a source of joy. When people daydream about the future, they tend to imagine themselves achieving and succeeding rather than fumbling or failing.

Why we worry too much about possible outcomes? Two reasons: First, thinking about unpleasant events can minimize their impact. The second reason why we take such pains to imagine unpleasant events in that fear, worry and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives. We motivate employees, children, spouses, and pets do the right thing by dramatizing the unpleasant consequences of doing it wrong.

Prospection can provide pleasure and prevent pain and this is one of the reason why our brains stubbornly insist on churning out thoughts of the future. We have large frontal lobe so that we can look into the future, we look into the future so that we can make prediction about it, we make predictions about it so that we can control it . People find it gratifying to exercise control.

Subjectivity - The fact that experience is unobservable to everyone but the person having it.

We all steer ourselves toward the futures that we think will make us happy, but what does that word really mean? And how can we ever hope to achieve solid, scientific answers to questions about something as gossamer as a feeling?

The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness and judgmental happiness.

Emotional happiness is the feeling common to the feelings. For example, we have when we see our new granddaughters smile for the first time, receive word of promotion, help a wayward tourist find the art museum, taste Belgian chocolate toward the back of our tongue, inhale the scent of our lover’s shampoo, hear that song we used to like so much in high-school but have not heard in years. These feelings are different, but they also have something in common. It is an experience; it can only be approximately defined by its antecedents and by its relation to other experiences.

The novelist Graham Greene wrote, “Hatred seem to operate the same glands as love”. It is possible to mistake fear for lust, apprehension for guilt, shame for anxiety.

The dissociation between awareness and experience can cause the same sort of spookiness with regard to our emotions. Some people seem to be keenly aware of their moods and feelings and may even have a novelist’s gift for describing their every shade and flavor. others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that much to the chagrin of our romantic partners, consists primarily of ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ and ‘I have already told you’.

Realism - The belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind

We use our eyes to look into space and our imagination to look into time. Just as our eyes sometimes lead us to see things as they are not, our imaginations sometimes lead us to foresee things as they will not be. Imagination suffers from three shortcomings that give rise to the illusion.

Our inattention to absences influences the way we think about the future. Just as we don’t remember every detail of a past event so do we fail to imagine every detail of a future event?

It is difficult to escape focus of our own attention - difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering and this is one of the reasons why we so often mis-predict our emotional responses to future events.

Presentism - The tendency for current experience to influence one’s views of the past and the future.

We have already seen how brains make ample use of the filling-in trick when they remember the past or imagine the future and the phrase ‘filling in” suggests an image of a hole being plugged with some sort of material. For example, when middle-aged people are asked to remember what they thought about premarital sex, how they felt about political issues, or how much alcohol they drink when they were in the college, their memories are influenced by how they think feel and drink now. The tendency to fill in the holes in our memories of the past with material from the present is esp. powerful when it comes to remembering emotions.

Pre-feeling often allows us to predict. our emotions better than logical thinking does. But pre-feeling has limits. How we feel when we imagine some things is not always a good guide to how we will feel when we see hear wear drive eat or kiss it. For example, why do you close your eyes when you want to visualize an object or jam your fingers in your ears when you want to remember the melody of certain song? You do these things because your brain must see its visual and auditory cortices to execute acts of visual and auditory imaginations and if these areas are already busy doing their primary jobs, then they are not available for acts of imaginations

Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: Wonderful things are esp. wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. But human beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time (frequency)

We make mistakes when we compare with the past instead of the possible. When we do compare with the possible, we still make mistakes. One of the most insidious things about side by side comparison is that it leads us to pay attention to any attribute that distinguishes the possibilities we are comparing. All of the facts about comparison mean for our ability to imagine future feelings are: 1) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another, 2) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instances and 3) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.

Rationalization - the act of causing something to be or to seem reasonable
Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there. If we have trouble foreseeing future events, then we have even more trouble foreseeing how we will see them when they happen.

The only thing more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack is finding a needle in a needle-stack. When an object is surrounded by similar objects it naturally blends in and when it is surrounded by dissimilar objects it naturally stands out.

The interesting question is how we disambiguate them - that is how we know which of a stimulus’s many meaning to infer on a particular occasion. research shows that context, frequency and recency are esp. important in this regard.

Why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inaction than of actions. If our action turned out to be wrong one, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience. However, if our inactions turned out to be a missing a fortune, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because there wasn’t one.

Unexplained events have two qualities that amplify and extend their emotional impact. First, they strike us as rare and unusual. The second reason is that we are esp. likely to keep thinking about them.

Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them.

The eye and the brain are conspirators and like most conspiracies, theirs is negotiated behind closed doors, in the back room, outside of our awareness

Corrigibility - Capable of being corrected, reformed or improved.

There are many good things about getting older, but no one knows what they are.

When people are asked to name the single object they would try to save if their home caught fire, the most common answer is ‘my photo album’. And yet, research reveals that memory is less like a collection of photographs than it is a like a collection of impressionist paintings rendered by an artist who takes considerable license with his subject.

Imaginations have three shortcomings: First shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. Second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future. Third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen.

What makes us think we are so darned special? Three reasons: First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is, We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. The third reason is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness - that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

Dutch polymath Daniel Bernoulli suggested that the wisdom of any decision could be calculated by multiplying the probability that the decisions will give us what we want by the utility of getting what we want. By utility, Bernoulli means something like goodness or pleasure.

Bernoulli correctly realized that people are sensitive to relative rather than absolute magnitude and his formula was meant to take this basic psychological truth into account. Without a formula for predicting utility, we tend to do what only our species does: imagine. Our brain have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. If our great brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

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