Daniel T. Gilbert understands disappointment. He understands when a Bartley’s hamburger fails to fulfill your innermost desires, and when your new orange ski jacket just doesn’t cut it. Gilbert has heard it all a thousand times before. Really. That’s because Gilbert, the recent subject of a New York Times Magazine profile entitled “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness,” has spent the last decade studying disappointment. The Psych 1 prof took some time this week to bash Ouija boards, lament his lack of groupies and educate FM on the latest in (un)happiness studies. But beware: you won’t enjoy reading this as much as you think you will.
1. What do you mean when you say you “study happiness”?
We study how—and how well—people can look into the future and predict what will make them happy, what won’t make them happy and how long those feelings will last. So, I actually don’t say I study happiness. I say I study future-oriented cognition—how people think about the future. When you’re thinking about what should I do next, that’s code for “what will make me happiest.”
2. What aspects of society might your research affect?
Usually when people ask about what aspects of society, they’re talking about institutions. And, I’m not a big fan of institutions trying to fix people. I don’t want to be in the business of curing people of their affective forecasting errors. I want to be in the business of giving [people] the tools to cure themselves if they think these errors are a problem.
3. Are you going to set up an opposing course to “Psych 1504: Positive Psychology” to teach the futility of pursuing happiness?
We’re going to try to set up a course called “Pure Evil Psychology.” No, of course not. I have no interest in creating a course that’s antagonistic to any other, and, by and large, our work fits very nicely into the work of positive psychology.
4. Have you gained any philosophical followers from your happiness research? Is there, at this moment, a pack of existentialist chain smokers discussing Camus under your desk?
Well, at least you got me to turn around and look. I am a scientist, after all. It’s hard to gauge the impact that science has except on other scientists. To my knowledge, we don’t yet have groupies. We don’t have T-shirts. But, that is not to say we wouldn’t enjoy those things.
5. Did any of your test subjects find the happiness research therapeutic?
The idea of scientific experiments is not to be conceived with the idea of therapy. Whether the subjects find the experience therapeutic, one would have to ask them, but I think the answer is probably no. They learn something from being in the experiment. Whether that has a curative effect—that we don’t know.
6. Do some people—like Kelly Ripah or Oprah—ever reach levels of happiness that others of us don’t?
The interesting question isn’t whether happiness waxes and wanes, or whether it differs between people—it’s why. If Oprah experiences more happiness than I do, why? Is it that women experience more than men? Is it [that] TV stars experience more than college professors? You could go down the list. And part of what people who study happiness are trying to figure out is which of those items on the list really matter and which don’t.
7. If anticipated happiness is a faulty way to make a decision, what should we be basing our decisions on?
Other people’s reports of their experience. One of the worst ways to decide whether you’ll be happy in the future is to close your eyes and imagine it. To simulate your own future is to make yourself liable to a whole bundle of judgmental errors that we’ve studied and documented. It turns out that there’s some very good information out there in the world about how you’re going to feel if you go to work on Wall Street, become paraplegic, marry a woman from Somalia, move to California. Whatever you’re contemplating in your life, there are people who are actually living the future you’re thinking about.
8. Are decisions important? What’s wrong with letting a magic eight ball decide the path of my life?
We are a species of people who take our faiths into our own hands—I think for good reason. We make good decisions and we make bad ones. The trick is to learn how to make better decisions. But to simply give up deciding and flip coins—I don’t think anyone would seriously entertain that as a prescription for well-being and happiness.
9. You also argue that we are never bothered by bad things to the degree that we anticipate. Have you ever, say, stepped in a puddle of mud, felt sore about it for an exceedingly long time and thought to yourself, “I’m not supposed to do this?”
In science, we almost never say never, and that’s the only thing that scientists have in common with Ronald Reagan—his “never say never.” So, I never said we never feel as bad, but I did say and would stand by the claim that we generally don’t feel as bad for as long as we think we will when negative events befall us.
10. What’s a better predictor of the future—the human brain or a Ouija Board?
Human beings do a pretty good job of predicting the future, at least in the short term. The problem is, you could know exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow and still not know how much you’re going to like it when you get there.
11. Have you ever cited your research to get out of an argument?
Well, I would say “no,” but my girlfriend would probably say “constantly.” After all, what else do you have to fall back on if you’re a psychologist?
12. Do you cry or laugh when watching the Home Shopping Network?
We could do that as a test. But you’d have to tell me what the Home Shopping Network is, we’d have to find it, then you could measure my tears or my guffaws. I actually have never home-shopped.
13. You were a science fiction writer before you became a psychology professor. What do you think of returning to your old trade?
First, it’s important to recognize that there are editors of scientific journals who still think I’m a science fiction writer. Both science and fiction are about telling a story. The difference is that science has to be constrained by known facts...Science is a game with more rules and I find games with lots of rules to be more challenging to play. So, no, I never think of going back and writing science fiction stories.
14. Your life is based on a number of accidents—like taking a psychology course because creative writing was filled up—but those accidents have turned out surprisingly well for you. How does this element of the surprise event fit into your study of happiness?
You know, we haven’t studied that at all. Everybody can always say, Oh my god, I almost didn’t end up here being me. I don’t do that a lot. To me, life and science are a lot like driving a car. You occasionally glance through the rearview mirror, but you spend most of your time looking through the windshield.
15. In your opinion, does the pleasure of dreaming outweigh the disappointment of reality? Do you ever prefer fantasy to the truth?
In some ways, I always prefer fantasy to the truth, because fantasy always pleases me and the truth doesn’t. On the other hand, there’s something delicious about getting your hands on a fact. Robert Nozick had a famous conundrum where he asked people, “If you could go inside a happiness machine and you’d experience a life of utter bliss, but you’d really be laying inside a machine with your brain all wired up, would you want to go into the machine?” I don’t know anybody who’s ever done that study, but I would suggest that there would be plenty of people who would go into that machine, lay down and have a dream life. But now I’m starting to sound like a Philip K. Dick novel.