C'mon, Get Happy? It's Easier Said Than Done.

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

It's the start of a new year, so think ahead, if you will, to Dec. 31, 2008. What are your hopes for the next 12 months? Maybe you want to be richer or slimmer, get married or get divorced, become gainfully employed or be thankfully retired.

There is a single word that describes the goal of all these dreams and aspirations. They are all ways, ultimately, to make you happy.

Some of us will get the things we want, and others won't. The more interesting question is: Why do people who get what they want rarely end up as happy as they expected, while people who fail to achieve dreams rarely end up as unhappy as they feared? Systematic experiments show that as strongly as we hold onto our dreams and fear setbacks, we are poor judges of what will make us happy and unhappy.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has made it his life's work to understand why people not only make errors in predicting what will make them happy, but also why they make the same errors over and over again.

Gilbert argues that the phenomenon has much in common with the way parents relate to their children. After decades of slogging and sacrifice, parents are shocked when children turn around and say, "Whatever made you think doing all this would make me happy?" In much the same way, Gilbert has argued in a number of research papers and his 2006 book, "Stumbling on Happiness," that our future selves often have trouble understanding the choices and decisions we make today.

On Dec. 31, his studies suggest, our ungrateful future selves are as likely as not to ask, "Whatever made you think I would be happier if I were richer/slimmer/married/divorced/employed/retired?"

Gilbert argues that our inability to make accurate predictions about what will make us happy stems from thought processes that people are more or less stuck with -- our minds are designed to see the world as it is right now, rather than from the point of view of the people we are going to become. Understanding this won't make people happier, he argues, but it might help them understand themselves and their choices better.

Rule 1. Bingeing is bad, except when it isn't.

One intuitive rule people have is that it makes sense to spread good things out over time. If you have 100 units of happiness for the year, it doesn't make sense to use them all up in one day and be miserable the other 364. And experiments have confirmed that, for example, two gifts of $50 make people happier than a single $100 gift.

"The first million you earn means more to you than the second," said Carey K. Morewedge, who studies social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. "After a certain point, you become insensitive to gains of the same size."

But in a new paper Morewedge published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, he showed this intuition breaks down when the goodies in question are too small. People often go to two moderately priced restaurants instead of one really nice restaurant, and find that neither meal pleases them.

There is a minimum amount of pleasure, in other words, that must be achieved before people derive any satisfaction at all. Different people have different thresholds, but subdividing your pleasures below that threshold will result in less happiness, not more.

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