Wednesday, January 19, 2005


In a very strange op-ed piece, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard writes
Research suggests that human beings have a remarkable ability to manufacture happiness. … [We have a] natural tendency to seek, notice, remember, generate and uncritically accept information that makes us happy.
Gilbert focused on the election and on why Democrats, who said the would be unhappy if Bush won, did not run off to Canada en mass
Democrats will realize that winning isn't always such a good thing - and besides, they almost won. … Of course, not everyone … has this talent for reasoning his way to happiness. [emphasis added]
It's this latter notion that has me confused. Does Gilbert really believe that we reason our way to happiness?

He acknowledges that
Throughout history, there have always been a few unfortunates who found it impossible to reframe negative events in positive ways, and these poor souls were predictably less happy than the rest of us. Lincoln, for example, was perpetually melancholic. Martin Luther King Jr. had more bad than good days. "Suffering and evil often overwhelm me," said Gandhi from the midst of a depression, "and I stew in my own juice."
More than a few people are subject to depression. Gilbert must know that. Happiness and unhappiness are emotional states, not mental states. People cannot change how they feel by deciding to feel a particular way. I can't understand how a psychologist can suggest such a thing.

There has been some very interesting work on happiness. I reported on some of it here. But it's much more complex than just talking oneself into being happy. Here is an excerpt.
Princeton Psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman has studied happiness. Here is a report of a talk in which he explains happiness.

His paper Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness discusses, among other things, an experiment in which subjects who had colonoscopies were asked how painful they were. The result is that the memory of pain depended not on the integral of the pain over the period of the procedure but more on the peak and the end of the procedure. If patient A has a 10 minute colonoscopy that ends painfully, and patient B has a 20 minute colonoscopy whose pain profile is identical to that of patient A's for the first 10 minutes but becomes less painful for the second 10 minutes, patient B will remember the overall procedure as less painful than patient A — even though patient B had more overall pain than patient A!
I attended a talk by Kahneman about a year ago. He said that in all of his research, the person who scored the highest on all his happiness scales was a meditator. Meditation strives to decouple one's emotional responses from one's intellectual responses. An expert meditator has freed himself from having his feelings driven by his thoughts. He is present and spontaneous in his feelings. This is just the opposite of what Gilbert would have us believe.

Besides Kahneman's work, there is other interesting work on happiness. See, for example Martin Seligman's work on Positive Psychology. It too recognizes the difference between mental (conceptual) states and happiness. Seligman tends to recommend doing things (like doing something nice for someone) that has the effect of making us feel happy. Again, this is different from talking oneself into feeling happy.

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