Day 214: Stumbling Around Happiness

August 1st, 2010

“When people think of ‘science’, they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can’t be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.” – Daniel Gilbert.

I often think about Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness when I find myself in exactly the situation he described in the book. Based on his work in the research science lab at Harvard in “affective forecasting,” which investigates how well people make predictions about the emotional impact of future events, the results of our collective capacity on knowing what we want and how it will make you feel is not promising. Humans are not terribly successful at predicting the reactions of our future selves to our current desires.

Our brains and our eyes mislead us. They conspire together to support each other in believing the distortions of reality to fit our expectations. Gilbert explains: “Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous­, that is, they can be credibly viewed in many ways, some of which are more positive than others. To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. To ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants. The conspiracy between these two servants allows us to live at the fulcrum of stark reality and comforting illusion.”

What this all means to me tonight is that like most of us, it is hard to remember that the life we are having is precisely the one we choose, and frequently have worked very hard to maintain. But then you look around and realize that you thought it would feel differently, having achieved what you wanted. I am on the brink of some big changes in my work life and with my family. My children growing up and away still need to be attended as much as they want their freedom and the balance of contact is precarious and unpredictable for both sides.

My recent successes in winning investment require dramatic shifts in responsibilities and, while I longed for the support and relief that comes with letting go to other competent people, I never understood how much of my identity and capacity to express myself would be trimmed away in the transition. All of the developments are positive and leading in a good direction, yet I struggle with finding the happiness that I believed would come along when I imagined this future.

The only really reliable way of predicting how we might feel is to ask other people who are now experiencing the life we imagined. Ironically we rarely do consult others about the future we are dreaming of. We all believe we are unique, special, above average and that someone else’s experience will not be like ours. I knew business people who would have shared their experience, identical to my own right now. What for,  I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I am not alone in this, we all need to have the experience ourselves to believe it.

We also have this annoying psychological habit of habituation, which means that rather than deriving more pleasure from a consistent positive experience, as we adapt to it, we get less pleasure from it over time. This is why although I should be overjoyed about the health of my marriage and family,  I have to continuously frighten myself by some imaginary loss to stay in touch with the joy.

The defects in our imagined future are not that different from our selective memory. We remember things in a certain way to create a reality we can live with. We remember the best view of things and the facts that will support them. Or if you are negative mostly, you construct your memory around the way you think. I often try to challenge myself to remember what actually happened,  but am usually unable to separate the events from interpretation.

All of this takes me to the here and now of an un-anticipated discomfort of life being what I want, but not necessarily feeling how I thought it would… welcome to life in a human body on earth. I tried to get Dr. Gilbert to talk to me on Lunch with the Loveologist about all this,  he declined, after having talked about it for the last three years. I can see how he might get all talked out about this- still I am glad to know why I keep hitting this positivity wall.

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