Mary's Library

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Update on Happiness

I’ve finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, and I now know his secret for achieving happiness: surrogation.

When we make decisions about our future Gilbert encourages us to observe people at random who have done the thing we are contemplating and to use that information in making our own decisions.

We have a lot of objections to this way of running our lives, particularly to the randomness of the observation. This is because we think we’re different. Psychologists tell us we aren’t. Many more than 50% of people polled rate themselves as well above average, whether the question is about our penmanship or our decision making. Ninety six percent of us think we are above-average drivers.

So look around you. Are richer people happier? Are parents of teenagers glowing with the deep and lasting joy of childrearing? Are blondes having more fun?


At 6:06 AM PDT , Anonymous DGus said...

This suggestion of "surrogation" is excellent advice, subject to an important clarification: We can't often know about another person's happiness--especially someone we observe at random--so it's important to get really good information about our surrogates.

Someone wondering whether he would be happy having children might come to very different conclusions if he observed parents and kids en masse at the shopping mall, as opposed to being able truly to observe, say, bedtime. Someone wondering whether he would be happy as a librarian might come to very different conclusions if he attended a Librarians Union meeting, as opposed to being able to observe [fill in the blank with things that make a librarian's heart warm]. Some tedious and mediocre things are overwhelmingly redeemed by priceless moments that outsiders might not even see.

But the advice is excellent. I'll follow it from now on. (Thanks for sharing.)

At 8:47 AM PDT , Blogger Mary said...

DGus, Your point about the joy or pain that we experience but that others do not see is well taken. Gilbert emphasizes that we don’t feel other people’s elation or despair, only our own. (Consequently, most of us convince ourselves that we are different: more sensitive, more stoic, or whatever we want to think about ourselves.)

He specifically mentions bringing up our children, which can be troublesome and makes us miserable at times but which gives us moments of delight – as when we read to our sleepy toddlers.

But when we look back on raising children many of us remember it almost entirely as a pleasure, in part because our feelings of fondness and contentment are culturally reinforced. (Or so says Gilbert.) We later recall that we were very happy when we lived with a terrible two-year-old or a strong-willed teenager, especially when the child goes on to Yale Law School or to cure cancer. : )

But numerous studies show that real-time self-reported happiness in marriage takes a nosedive with the birth of the first child and doesn’t recover until the empty-nest phase.


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