Monday, September 08, 2003

It won't make you as happy as you think

The September 7, 2003 issue of The New York Times Magazine has a great article called "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness" by Jon Gertner. Gertner writes about a Harvard psychology professor named Daniel Gilbert who studies happiness. Gilbert's studies have found that people are bad at predicting how things and events will impact their future happiness. To summarize, people consistently overestimate how happy or unhappy a thing or event will make them, and also overestimate how long that happiness or unhappiness will last. Gilbert calls this tendency to overestimate "impact bias."

As Tim Wilson says, "We don't realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure."

To distill this even further, change never matters as much as we think it will. Knowing this, logically we should care less about change, craving good things a bit less while also fearing bad things a bit less.

Another interesting quote from the article:

George Loewenstein sums up this human capacity [of adaptation] as follows: "Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us."

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