Daniel Gilbert on the Science Behind the Smile

09 Feb

From Daniel Gilbert’s interview in HBR on Happiness, Science & the Science of Happiness:

That said, there have been some surprises. For example, while all these things do make people happier, it’s astonishing how little any one of them matters…As it turns out, people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy and how long that happiness will last. They expect positive events to make them much happier than those events actually do, and they expect negative events to make them unhappier than they actually do…A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it…

One reason is that people are good at synthesizing happiness—at finding silver linings. As a result, they usually end up happier than they expect after almost any kind of trauma or tragedy.

Q. Aren’t they deluding themselves? Isn’t real happiness better than synthetic happiness?
Let’s be careful with terms. Nylon is real; it’s just not natural. Synthetic happiness is perfectly real; it’s just man-made. Synthetic happiness is what we produce when we don’t get what we want, and natural happiness is what we experience when we do. They have different origins, but they are not necessarily different in terms of how they feel. One is not obviously better than the other.

Q. Is being happy always desirable? Look at all the unhappy creative geniuses—Beethoven, van Gogh, Hemingway. Doesn’t a certain amount of unhappiness spur good performance?
Nonsense! Everyone can think of a historical example of someone who was both miserable and creative, but that doesn’t mean misery generally promotes creativity. There’s certainly someone out there who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be 90, but that doesn’t mean cigarettes are good for you. The difference between using anecdotes to prove a point and using science to prove a point is that in science you can’t just cherry-pick the story that suits you best. You have to examine all the stories, or at least take a fair sample of them, and see if there are more miserable creatives or happy creatives, more miserable noncreatives or happy noncreatives. If misery promoted creativity, you’d see a higher percentage of creatives among the miserable than among the delighted. And you don’t. By and large, happy people are more creative and more productive. Has there ever been a human being whose misery was the source of his creativity? Of course. But that person is the exception, not the rule…

If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network—about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them.

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Posted by on February 9, 2012 in Links


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