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Stumbling on Happiness: Simulation, Surrogation, Attachment and Service

StumblingOnHappiness_DanielGilbertDan Gilbert gave an inspiring talk at Microsoft Research recently (before heading into Seattle to present to a larger audience at Town Hall), sharing some insights from his book Stumbling on Happiness.  Dan provided numerous opportunities to experience "learning through laughing" as he guided us through an engaging, enlightening and often delightful exploration into how well we tend to predict our own happiness (short answer: not very well).  I've been thinking (and blogging) a bit about happiness lately, and I find his diagnosis of the problems of misremembering the past, misperceiving the present and misimagining the future to be very compelling.  However, I don't find the solution he proposes to the problems of happiness to be entirely satisfying ... but will try not to let that disappointment taint my memory of the book or the talk.  Instead, I will invoke some other perspectives on the prospects for happiness, and muse a bit on how Web 2.0 provides tools that may help us stumble toward happiness.

Dan weaves together themes from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics -- complemented by numerous quotes from Shakespeare -- to support the following four claims regarding the way most of us approach, or stumble on, happiness:

  • Much of what we know is dead wrong
  • Much of what we predict is dead wrong
  • Much of what we learn from experience is, at best, extremely compromised
  • There is another strategy, but few are willing to adopt it

What we "know" is based on our memories, and the way we both store and retrieve memories is prone to bias.  Rather than store full-length feature films of our experiences, our brains extract relevant features -- typically, aspects that are unusual or unexpected, and involve strong emotions -- and store those.  When we later remember an experience, our brain acts as a "talented forger" and fabricates the missing pieces -- retrieving and reweaving -- which may or may not correspond very closely to the actual experiences.  Add to that the bias of feature selection that occurs when memories are stored, and one might reasonably question whether we really know anything at all (indeed, it was just this question that led me to abandon my study of philosophy toward the end of my college career in favor of computer science, a field where the problems seemed more tractable).

The gaps in memory are exacerbated when we use our past to predict our future:

If the past is a wall with some holes, the future is a hole with no walls. Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick.

And so, we often unconsciously rely upon our subjective experience of the present to project (or simulate) how we are likely to feel about possible futures.  And our projections of possible negative futures do not take into account our psychological immune system, which enables us to be very creative in fabricating positive new perspectives in the face of what may have earlier appeared as devastating misfortunes: "when we can't change our experience ... we change our view of the experience".

Our inability or unwillingness to appreciate this resiliency leads us to avoid risks.  I'm [often] reminded of Oriah Mountain Dreamer's poem, The Invitation, in which she asks:

I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

Dan applies a more academic analysis to this question:

... most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.

In addition to our tendency to err in our assessment of future risks, we also err in our ability to learn from past experiences.  We tend to remember rare and unusual experiences, and then generalize based on the unusual aspects of infrequently occurring events ... ignoring ordinary or frequently occurring events ... and not taking into adequate account the range of events that have not occurred.  This may help us identify potential risks and rewards, but leaves us poorly equipped to assess the actual likelihood of those risks and rewards.

This brings me to one of the areas I disagree with the book: its warning about the "troubling consequences" that arise from "unrealistic optimism".  Imagining positive futures can lead people to overestimate the likelihood that positive events will occur, but I don't see why that is troubling, nor did the book shed more light on the negative consequences.  In fact, other psychological studies have demonstrated that visualizing success can be instrumental in achieving that success. 

I asked Dan about this after his talk, and he said that optimism is a matter of degree, and that an outlook that is slightly more positive than warranted is probably ideal.  However, given all the foregoing about how little we actually know about ourselves, correctly determining the correct level of optimism that might be warranted would seem to be problematic.  In another section of the book, Dan notes that

The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.

So if the brain wants happiness, it seems that the best policy may be to err on the side of positive extremism ... or to adapt a quote from Barry Goldwater, extremism in the cause of positivism is no vice.

After highlighting the many problems inherent in trying to simulate our future happiness, Dan proposes an alternate approach, based on the idea of a surrogate: rather than relying solely on our selves (and our fallible memories) to imagine how happy we will feel in some future state, we should capitalize on the experience of others by inquiring about the happiness of those who are already in the future state we are considering.  Of course, then the problem is figuring out which others we ought to consult in estimating our future, an objection that Dan anticipates, and responds to by noting that we tend to overestimate our uniqueness, and so are often unwilling to believe that others' experiences of happiness or unhappiness would readily translate into our own.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly endorse the notion that our commonalities are far broader and deeper than our differences.  I also believe that focusing on differences reinforces the us vs. them (and, in particular, the U.S. vs. them) mentality that makes it easy to be hard on others.  And one of my favorite quotes is "strangers are simply friends who haven't met yet".

All that said, there is still a part of me that is attached to the idea that there are important differences in what makes each of us happy.  Dan notes a study in which a group of stuffed volunteers were asked to predict how much they would enjoy eating potato chips the next day; those who based their predictions on a report from a random potato chip eater (someone who had been there, done that) were more accurate than those who relied solely on their own imaginations (and stuffed bellies).  Unfortunately, I consider potato chips to be a poor surrogate for analyzing how one should make choices about bigger decisions regarding where to live, where to work, and whom to marry (or partner with).

Rather than get random reports from others who are experiencing the future states we are considering, we are increasingly able to get more specialized reports from the future by people who are like us in interesting and useful ways.  For example, the vast majority of media productions -- books, movies, television, music -- do not bring me happiness, and yet there must be critical masses of other people who do feel happy as they consume them.   If I were to make my media consumption choices based on random sampling, I do not believe I would be very happy.  Instead, I want to know what media people like me like.

The Internet is making it easier to find such people, explicitly or implicitly.  For example, the explicit ratings and reviews found on make it one of my favorite places to go for making my media purchase decisions.  While the Amazon recommendations, based on implicitly matching my explicit purchase history with others' purchase histories, often miss the mark, I have found that similar kinds of collaborative filtering techniques enable MovieLens to recommend  movies I typically am interested in seeing and MusicStrands to recommend music tracks I typically want to listen to.

Web 2.0 is ushering in an era where we can reveal much more about ourselves than our media consumption patterns (not to diminish how much these patterns do reveal about us -- I am always interested in scanning the bookshelves and CD collections of people I meet).  By offering more people greater opportunities to express themselves in words, photos and videos, we are in a better position than ever before to discover people who are like us, and thereby to find the people like us who have already had experiences that are outcomes of choices we are currently considering.

Dan makes many insightful observations -- often phrased in pithy ways -- throughout the book.  In fact, one of the challenges I've faced in trying to post a few notes on his book (and talk) is in selecting just a few of the observations to focus on.  One of the most illuminating observations identifies the importance of feeling important:

Being effective -- changing things, influencing things, making things happen -- is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control. ... Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy. ...  We want -- and we should want -- to control the direction of our boat because some futures are better than others, and even from this distance, we should be able to tell which are which.

I'm reminded of M. Scott Peck's observation that for an infant, it is natural to defecate in one's pants, but that most of us eventually learn unnatural responses to this basic human urge.  I think most of us (myself included) do not progress very far beyond this urge to control, to influence, to matter.  However, as noted above, Dan shows that people are able to adapt to and be happy in the face of a broad range of previously imagined "worse futures", leading me to question how much all this striving for happiness -- or trying to matter -- really matters.  Maybe the key -- or a key -- to happiness is to learn not to focus so much on controlling or influencing outcomes, but to live without attachments.  Don't try to be happy, be happy.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her audiobook Your Heart's Prayer, echoes this sentiment, telling us that to be happy, it doesn't really matter what we do, only how we do it, and that bringing all of who we are to everything we do is the best path to happiness.  She also notes that alleviating the suffering of others figures prominently in the paths to happiness of many people.  This notion of being in service to others does not figure prominently in Dan's analyses, and yet helper's high seems to be highly correlated with happiness in many people.

Perhaps this can be easily accommodated within Dan's proposed solution to happiness by simply expanding on his notion of surrogation, and make it a two-way orientation.  In addition to seeking assistance from others who are already where [we think] we want to be, we can offer assistance to others from where we are now.

I don't know if any of the foregoing will be of any use or assistance to others, but I do know that I feel happy to have finally processed some of the thoughts and feelings that have been floating around my head and heart since I first encountered this book on happiness.

[Update, 2006-06-17: BoingBoing posted a link (via Avi) to an MP3 of Dan Gilbert's talk at SxSW entitled How to do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times.]

[Update, 2006-07-10: Dan Gilbert has a blog!  While reading his book, I sensed that he and I shared a number of things about which we feel happy, e.g., Kauaii sunsets, Talisker scotch, Bordeaux wine, Starbucks coffee, Monty Python, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis.  Now it appears that we also share a keen interest in An Inconvenient Truth -- not that we feel happy about it -- and I highly recommend his blog post on It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine, which includes a copy of his LA Times op-ed article on If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming.]

Here's a video of Dan Gilbert talking about "Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?" at TED 2004:

In his TED talk, he closes with the following quotes; the first from William Shakespeare, the second from Adam Smith:

'Tis nothing good or bad
But thinking makes it so.
The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another... Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.
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