Sunday, February 8, 2009

Could it be Christmas everyday?

Christmas is a time for happiness. So much so that it feels like the holiday season is an entirely separate entity from the rest of the year. Families, friends, food and festivities fill our lives and happiness sets in as a consequence. Why do we feel so much happier over the holidays and is there a way to continue that happiness throughout the whole year?

Of course there’s no clear answer to that question, despite what a number of self-help books might want you to think. There is no road easy road to happiness but there may be some signposts along the way.

Dan Gilbert is a professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University and he’s spent a good portion of his time studying happiness and why people are so bad at making choices that will make them happier.

If asked how you’d feel about winning the lottery tomorrow or becoming paraplegic, most people would have the good sense to say that winning the lottery would make you feel really good and that losing the use of your legs wouldn’t feel very good at all and, of course, they’d be right. Where we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy is the degree to which certain events are going to make us feel good and how long those feelings will last.

One tendency that creates these bad decisions is that we focus too much how something will make us feel and forget that other events in our lives will impact our mood. An example of this is an avid sports fan who overestimates how good a win will make him feel because he ignores all of the other sources of stress and unhappiness in his or her life. A win for your sports team may make you feel good in the short term, but if you have looming deadlines that feeling can be rather shortlived.

What helps us deal with this inability to make the best choices, Gilbert argues, is that we have the machinery necessary to produce happiness ourselves – that sometimes we can be just as happy not getting something we want as actually getting it. Though this is initially hard to believe, allow me to persuade you, if only partially, by summarizing an experiment Gilbert did with some colleagues to support his point.

His experiment involved showing six prints of Monet paintings to different participants. Each participant was asked to rank the prints from their favourite to their least favourite at which point they were told that they could have one of the prints to take home but the could only choose from their third and fourth most preferred prints. Most participants choose the one they ranked third and were sent home. At some point in the future, the participants were shown the prints again and asked to rank them in terms of preference once more. The participants tended to rank the one they chose, the third one, higher than they did initially and they ranked the one they rejected lower than they did before.

One of two things could be happening here. The first possibility is that the participants have convinced themselves that they liked the own better simply because they own it. In essence, they don’t necessarily like it better than they did before but they are pretending to. This is similar to what we think people do when they buy something expensive but aren’t quite satisfied. They feign happiness. The second possibility is once the participant has made their choice they have actually changed their preferences and are genuinely happier. They have “synthesized” their own happiness by changing their preferences.

Gilbert, in order to show that the second possibility is actually quite a plausible one, conducted the experiment again but using patients which, for one reason or another, have lost the ability to form short term memories. The experiment was the same as before. They asked the participants to rank the prints, told them they could have one and that they would be getting it in the mail in a couple weeks. They left the room for a half hour, reentered and did the same task again. The participants could not, when asked, pick the one they had chosen in the first task, demonstrating that they had no recollection of the print they had chosen. Amazingly, these participants responded in the same way as the first study. They tended to rank the one they chose higher than before and ranked the one they rejected lower. Because they couldn’t remember which one they chose the first time they couldn’t be simply pretending to be happier. They had synthesized happiness by changing their preferences – and they didn’t even know it!

As with any experiment like this, it’s important to not blow the results out of proportion but we can take some solace in our ability to create happiness. We tend to overestimate how we will be affected by things in the future due, at least in part, to the fact that we can synthesize happiness. A number of studies have shown that people think they are going to feel worse after painful medical procedures than they actually do. Even the initial example I presented between a lottery winner and a paraplegic demonstrates this. One year after either winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs, members of both categories report being equally happy with their lives. As Gilbert expressed in a recent interview on the Stephen Colbert show, this insight isn’t meant to be like a self-help book, they’re only meant to help you identify the ways in which people make bad decisions which is likely to help make future decisions.

Nonetheless, we can indulge these results a little and know that we have the ability to make it a little more like Christmas everyday. Maybe the poem “Everyday is Christmas” is referring to synthesized happiness when it says, “Every day is Christmas /with a beauty deeply cast/ When you find it doesn't matter/ if you're first or if you're last”

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