Happiness, Where Are You?
From the notes of two world-renowned psychologists
Prof. Daniel Gilbert, an American social psychologist, in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” talks about the powers and limits of foresight, and how we often badly predict our futures and end up not finding happiness where we expect it. Contrary to what the name suggests, the book does not, however, tell us where to find happiness.
In the initial part of the book, he explains a process called “nexting” which helps animals predict the next events near them,
All brains — human brains, chimpanzee brains, even regular food-burying squirrel brains — make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. They do this by using information about current events (“I smell something”) and past events (“Last time I smelled this smell, a big thing tried to eat me”) to anticipate the event that is most likelyto happen to them next (“A big thing is about to — — — ”).
“Just as an abacus can put two and two together to produce four without having thoughts about arithmetic, so brains can add past to present to make future without ever thinking about any of them.”
He explains how we used to live in the ‘present’ like all other animals, and our ability to imagine the future (and higher levels of anxiety) is a result of evolution.
“A permanent present — what a haunting phrase. How bizarre and surreal it must be to serve a life sentence in the prison of the moment, trapped forever in the perpetual now, a world without end, a time without later. Such an existence is so difficult for most of us to imagine, so alien to our normal experience, that we are tempted to dismiss it as a fluke — an unfortunate, rare, and freakish aberration brought on by traumatic head injury. But in fact, this strange existence is the rule and we are the exception. For the first few hundred million years after their initial appearance on our planet, all brains were stuck in the permanent present, and most brains still are today.”
Referring to the concepts in the book “Be Here Now” by Richard Alpert, Prof. Gilbert says that,
“not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor. Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion.”
Thanks to the growth spurt in our forebrains over the last 2 million years, humans have developed an ability to imagine, and we use this to predict our futures.
He explains how we use imagination for deriving pleasure(that could even be more pleasurable than a real experience). We also anticipate unpleasant events in order to minimize their impact, and sometime even to motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior to avoid such unpleasant events.
“Although imagining happy futures may make us feel happy, it can also have some troubling consequences. Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur. Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.”
He points out that our unrealistic optimism about our futures makes us bad at predicting it. We still, however, continue to predict our futures, because we like to feel in control of our lives.
“We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain — not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.”
How many times, when we are too hungry, have we overestimated how much our future selves could eat, only to end up overeating or wasting food? And that's just how badly we sometimes predict our near-future events!
Regarding the role of wealth in creating happiness, he notes,
“Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter.”
“Economists explain that wealth has “declining marginal utility,” which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper.”
It is not too hard to imagine people in need of money, being unhappy, working towards achieving financial stability and once they are there, rather than recognizing their potential for happiness, lose sight of it and keep working towards accumulating more wealth as an investment into future happiness, often finding it elusive.
Another interesting point that Prof. Gilbert brings to us through his book is the misconception about happiness related to raising kids. He says,
couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of “empty nest syndrome” is increased smiling.
“Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television. Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework.”
“Every parent knows that children are a lot of work — a lot of really hard work — and although parenting has many rewarding moments, the vast majority of its moments involve dull and selfless service to people who will take decades to become even begrudgingly grateful for what we are doing.”
That we prioritize our happiness over love, empathy, and sacrifice for our kids can cause cognitive dissonance in us. Could this be why in hindsight we say that raising our children was a joyful experience, instead of being overcome by the negativity bias created by all the hardships of parenting?
Or is it as Prof. Gilbert says,
“When parents look back on parenthood, they remember feeling what those who are looking forward to it expect to feel.”
He points out that the “joy of kids” and the “joy of wealth” are not just false beliefs, but are super-replicators since
“holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. The belief-transmission game explains why we believe some things about happiness that simply aren’t true.”
Apart from those who fall for these false beliefs of joy, many people have kids for a variety of other wrong reasons —for the fear of missing out on a parenting phase, to see their ambitions fulfilled through their kids, as a security for their old age, or even to save their own marriages! Then there are those who enter into parenting with a real interest and passion for children.
Parenting is a highly challenging job for all, and our skill levels invariably fall short before its challenges, causing anxiety and worry, leaving little scope for joy.
Unlike any other job, where we can find alternate opportunities aligned with our interests and skills, parenting is a life-long contract, which can cause long-lasting voids of happiness, especially for those who signed up for the wrong reasons.
“The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true. This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather, it means that while we believe we are raising children and earning paychecks to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken. We are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by a logic of its own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate, and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.”
That a state of being focussed and invested in the future(and happiness of our futures selves) causes anxiety, and that we cannot often accurately predict our future happiness, makes the pursuit of happiness a rather futile endeavor.
This brings us to the important question: How can we then find happiness?
Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, in his book titled ‘Flow’ mentions that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.
“happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J. S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.” It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
The book explains how we can achieve overall sustained happiness by creating flow states through optimal inner experiences.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”
“the concept of flow — the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
He describes ‘autotelic activities’ as the building blocks to optimal experiences.
“It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”
“The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”
Optimal flow experiences can be achieved when we set realistic goals, with challenges that can be overcome by stretching our skills. When the challenges are not tough enough for our skills, we feel bored. When they are way too tough for our skills, we feel overwhelmingly anxious.
“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy — or attention — is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives”