The psychology professor is smiling. It’s a warm day in Cambridge, the first in a while, and the sun coming in through the window shines off his endearingly bald head. “The Hair of the Man,” a poem celebrating the joys of baldness, decorates the wooden door to his corner office on the 14th floor of William James. Entering his office is not unlike asking him a question—the result is a stream of new ideas and unexpected discoveries. On the giant bulletin board, strands of jewel-toned Mardi Gras beads dangle over journal articles and newspaper clippings. Tucked among his framed photographs is a picture from his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Rows of uneven books, different sizes and colors, line his shelves, but many are translations of the same one: his New York Times-bestseller, “Stumbling on Happiness.”
The professor is irresistibly engaging, his phrases instantly memorable.
His words follow a path to the past, to the beginning of the journey that led him to 1430 WJH. As he talks, he reclines deeply into his chair with one, conspicuously-casual, cargo-clad leg crossed over the other. For a Harvard professor, his informality is curious, as is the chair itself—worn cloth, a royal purple.
Soon it’s obvious this man is no ordinary professor, and that his story is no typical tale of ascent to the zenith of academia. He is a Harvard College Professor of Psychology. He is a recipient of the Royal Society Prize for Science. He is a high school drop out. He is Daniel Gilbert.
AN EARLY STUMBLE
“I dropped out of high school when I was about 15 years old,” Gilbert says, his voice free of a hint of shame. In fact, he views his greatest triumph as appearing on the list of “Most Famous High School Dropouts,” according to the official Web site for “Stumbling on Happiness.”
After dropping out, Gilbert left his family home near Chicago and hitchhiked around the country, growing out his hair and strumming his guitar. While searching for his calling, he read Eastern philosophy, inspiring him to start asking what he terms “questions of the mind.”
Ultimately, the questions themselves proved to be his destiny. Unlike a clinical psychologist, Gilbert is more interested in understanding people than in helping them. He’ll never prompt, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
Instead, he wonders: Is it possible that Christopher Reeves believed he was better off after becoming paralyzed? Why do people who go grocery shopping without a list buy too much food for the next week when they’re hungry and too little food when they’re full? Why do people keep playing the lottery if most winners are just as happy as those who didn’t win? And why are human beings so bad at predicting what will make them happy?
Gilbert’s ability to ask questions—and propose answers—puts him at the forefront of the growing field of happiness research. New releases such as “The How of Happiness,” “The Happiness Hypothesis,” and Harvard’s own Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Happier” are signs that its never been trendier to be happy in our Prozac nation. But Gilbert and his colleagues are quick to emphasize the difference between self-help texts and his work, which aims to inform readers rather than promising five magic steps to a better self.
Gilbert’s second-year graduate student Mary Carol Mazza describes the difference as descriptive versus prescriptive. “His research addresses questions on the cognitive biases we have, the errors we have around happiness,” she says.
To answer these questions, Gilbert’s Hedonic Psychology Lab explores the psychology behind the “Holy Grails” of a fulfilling life: satisfaction, pleasure, and, of course, happiness.
“Happiness is what everybody is chasing,” Gilbert says. “There are people who say they aren’t, and they’re either lying or deluded. It’s the ultimate goal of what we do.”
THE WEARTHERMAN WAS WRONG
Unfortunately, finding happiness is much more difficult than people realize. In “Stumbling,” Gilbert writes that because we do not understand our own minds, we often make errors in “affective forecasting,” or predicting our future emotional states. People want to be happy, but because they can’t accurately foresee what will make them happy, they strive for things that do not, in the end, satisfy them.
Gilbert presents three main explanations for errors in affective forecasting. First, the human imagination works too well, prompting people to adjust their images of the future, fabricating some details while removing others. This results in overly optimistic predictions: our birthdays, for example, are never as fun as our imagination predicts or our memory recalls.
The second culprit for blunders in affective forecasting is “presentism,” or when people allow current conditions to dictate perceptions of the past and the future. A person who is currently hungry overestimates how hungry he will be in the future, and therefore overbuys at the grocery store. On a full stomach, presentism results in the opposite effect.
Finally, people misjudge their future happiness because they underestimate the power of the “psychological immune system.” In a dangerous or embarrassing situation, the human mind retreats into rationality, allowing those involved to move past the event and return to former levels of happiness. Because this psychological immune system does not kick in until necessary, people predict more dramatic changes in their happiness levels than actually occur.
It was a personal experience with his own psychological immune system that first inspired Gilbert to pursue this area of research. Around 1993, after experiencing a divorce, a falling out with his best friend, and the deaths of a parent and a mentor, Gilbert felt surprisingly okay—certainly better than he would have imagined. He shared this realization with friend and colleague Tim Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. The observation resonated with Wilson and the two decided to futher explore this phenomenon, sparking the years of research that would lead to “Stumbling.”
FROM SCIENCE FICTION TO SCIENCE
Back in 1430 WJH, the sun is still pouring in through the expansive window. A hanging oil painting, depicting a strange underwater scene, catches the light.
“That is actually the magazine illustration for one of the first science fiction stories I published,” Gilbert says as he glances at the image.
The novel that accompanied the painting is unimportant—in fact, he barely remembers what “The Essence of Grunk” is about. But the painting reminds him of a difficult period in his life, a time of odd-but ultimately necessary-steps on his journey to stardom.
After dropping out of high school and traveling around the country to muse over philosophical questions, Gilbert settled in Denver. By age 18, he was married and had a son and was writing science fiction stories on his typewriter. While he received encouraging feedback and sold some stories, he was honest with himself about his shortcomings: “I knew nothing about literature. I wasn’t even a good speller,” he recalls.
Asked what brought him to psychology, Gilbert’s cheeky answer is “a bus.” Striving to improve his craft, the struggling writer traveled to a local community college to enroll in creative writing classes. Upon arrival, however, he discovered that the writing classes were full. “It was a long bus ride so I asked them ‘Well, what’s open?’ and they said ‘Gosh, psychology is.’ And I thought, ‘Psychology has something to do with people, and I’m writing characters, so this will help me become a better writer.”
He enrolled in the course and enjoyed it so much that he signed up for more. “I found myself drifting more towards science than science fiction.”
Gilbert went on to earn his GED, and then a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado, Denver. He then continued his studies at Princeton, where he earned a Ph.D. in social psychology four years later.
It’s Monday afternoon and jazz fusion is blaring as students amble into a Science Center lecture hall to attend back to Psychology. 1. They settle towards the front of the the room. A poster from an old science fiction movie is projected on the left side of the lecture hall. On the right, the students see a schedule for the day’s lecture. Suddenly, Porky Pig interrupts the music: “That’s allllllll folks!” Gilbert takes the stage. “There are a lot of things it’s difficult to demonstrate in a classroom, ranging from earthquakes and black holes to evolution and the atomic weight of hydroholes to evolution and the atomic weight of hydrogen,” Gilbert says, beginning his biweekly lecture. “One thing that’s very easy to demonstrate is emotion.”
Gilbert’s class is fast paced and incredibly current. “I don’t think students know how much Dan puts into Psych 1,” says Gilbert’s second-year graduate student, Matthew A. Killingsworth.
Although Gilbert has been teaching the class on-and-off since 2001, he dedicates a great deal of effort to still improving his lectures, estimating that he spends an astounding 100 hours on each PowerPoint presentation. He updates these PowerPoints until right before showtime, often including relevant photos from the day’s news.
“I think it’s the only class you’ll see where people clap for literally five minutes at the end of each class,” Beatrice H. N. El-Hage ’11 says. “They wait to walk out. At the end of every class I hear people talking about how good the lecture was.”
Beyond his dynamic performance as a lecturer, Gilbert strives to reach his students through honesty and openness; after the final exam, he encourages enrollees to write anonymous questions, which he answers on the course Web site. Questions range from course specific: “How much do you make off of each textbook?” (“4.5 percent of the purchase price... but all royalties on sales to my own students are donated to a charity chosen by the student(s) who achieve the highest score in the class.”) to far more personal: “Have you ever used drugs?” (“Tobacco and nicotine and alcohol are drugs, so the answer is yes. If you mean illegal drugs then the answer is ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’”)
WORK HARD PLAY HARD
Gilbert’s wit extends beyond the classroom to his interactions with colleagues, with psychology professor Daniel Wegner describing him as “one of the funniest people I know personally—like my own Robin Williams.”
“He’s constantly thinking about psychology,” says Wegner, who’s known Gilbert since the early 1980s, when both taught in Texas. “Questions come to mind, popping up like firecrackers all the time. Everything is relevant.”
Like Gilbert’s office, Wegner’s is also ordered chaos, overflowing with photographs of his family, miles of psychology books, and quirky touches like the bumper sticker next to his desk that reads: “What if the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about?”
Last year, the pair teamed up with fellow psychology professor Daniel Schater—their publisher calls them “The Dans”—to write an introdcutory psychology textbook. And it was Gilbert who originally convinced Wegner to accept a teaching position at Harvard, prompting an auxiliary effect of practical jokes—like the time Wegner switched Gilbert’s nameplate with the men’s bathroom sign.
Gilbert, of course, retaliated: “I came in here one day, and turned on my computer,” Wegner recalls with a chuckle. “His face came on the screen and ‘Black Magic Woman’ started playing. I couldn’t make it go away. I have no idea why that particular song, or what was going on, but it just seemed like the thing for Gilbert to do.”
SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE
When he’s not pulling pranks on other professors, Gilbert’s mind is on his research. He resents anything that takes him away from his students or lab, even promoting his own book.
“I think he enjoyed the fact that people were reading it and that his ideas were getting out there to the public,” says Amit Kumar ’08, his research assistant of four years. “But I don’t think he really liked promoting the book. He complained about how he had to say the same things over and over when he went on all those talk shows. He wanted to get back to doing the work that he loves.”
The Hedonic Psychology Lab, the hub of this beloved pursuit, allows Gilbert to explore the questions he’s constantly asking.
In the lab, a homemade purple label reading “Karim’s Palace of Discount Research” adorns the door adjacent to Gilbert’s office. Karim S. Kassam, Gilbert’s fourth-year grad student, sits inside, frustrated about the constant misunderstanding of his chosen field.
“When I tell people I study psychology, they either think everything I do is ‘B.S.’ or they think I can read their mind,” he says.
“I was at a conference in Vegas, and we were in the line for the buffet. We told the pregnant woman who was running the buffet that we were coming from a psych conference and she asked us what the gender of her baby was.”
Kassam’s aggravation is understandable. He is dedicating his life to a field many people, including members of his own family, “don’t really buy.” Typically, the term “psychology” conjures up an image of a Freudian-type, cigar in hand, interpreting the dreams of an anxiety-ridden housewife lying prostrate on a couch.
But Kassam’s adviser is doing his part to change that. In the growing area of happiness studies, Gilbert’s work is immensely influential, inspiring further research by economists, students, and other psychologists. But it’s his contributions to the field of psychology more generally that may turn out to be even more meaningful.
Instead of just accepting the misconception of psychology, Gilbert is working to make the discipline more understandable and accessible to a lay audience.
“Because he was a writer and not entirely closed in the field of academia before he was a scientist, I feel like he’s able to think about and see things in a way that people who all share the same background can’t,” says Killingsworth, the second-year graduate student.
Gilbert believes “we do a bad job in psychology of making people aware of what we are doing.” Instead of cigars and couches, psychology is about science: challenging hypotheses, doing rigorous research, and collecting hard data. “I would never quibble with the data,” he repeats throughout the interview.
Through his book and articles in media like The New York Times, Forbes, and TIME, Gilbert has been able to start building the bridge between psychology and hard science in the minds of lay readers.
“I get e-mails every week saying ‘I didn’t know people did experiments on this kind of stuff. This is really interesting,’” Gilbert says proudly. “There’s a whole lay public out there who thinks that science is about rocks and molecules and atoms and that humanists study things like poetry and love and human relationships. With my book, they are finding out for the first time that there is actually a place where these two things meet, where people take scientific methods and study things that people care about. We call that area psychology.”
What Mazza finds particularly impressive as well is that Gilbert has managed to popularize his findings and spread his ideas to everyday people without compromising the science, and the rigor of his research.
“What Dan did with ‘Stumbling on Happiness,’ which was so amazing and impressive from a researcher’s standpoint, is he took 20 years of complicated psychology and distilled it down into things a layman could really understand,” she says. “His book is so powerful because he has the amazing ability to generate the most outlandish and creative ideas to explain the concept he’s trying to get across.”
Indeed, he isn’t even afraid to make use of scatalogical examples. In “Stumbling,” Gilbert uses his granddaughter’s massive collection of books about feces to explain our inability to learn from our mistakes. Unlike babies, we have no excuse for repeating our “pooping errors” and refusing to learn “proper potty protocol.”
This isn’t the only time Gilbert’s beloved granddaughters play a cameo in his work. They pop up constantly in lecture slides, in his textbook, and especially in his speech. In prioritizing family, Gilbert incorporates a lesson from his research.
“People are less unique than they think,” Gilbert says. “The same kind of things make most people happy, and human relationships is a major one.”
While his research isn’t about self-help, it’s certainly made Gilbert himself happier. For example, he takes the lesson that people tend to focus on insignificant decisions—like what pants to buy—to Costco, where he purchases his casual cargo pants in bulk.
But his research also shows that some choices do matter. In 2002, after finding that people are happier with decisions they can’t undo, he went home and proposed to his girlfriend of 10 years. The data had it right: “I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend,” he says.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Back in 1403 WJH, the psychology professor starts to grow restless. He’s still charming, but it’s clear he wants to get back to work.
But what does the future hold for the man who argues that we can’t predict it—at least not with any semblance of accuracy?
“I continue working on all the problems I’ve always worked on,” he says. He smiles, knowing he will soon finish the monotony of another interview and return to his love, research.
“I go to the lab with my grad students and undergraduates and we start to look at things,” he says. “When we find something really cool, we follow our noses and see where it leads us.”
“But most of all,” he adds, “I just stumble.”
—Staff writer Logan R. Ury ’10 can be reached at email@example.com.
—Iddoshe H. Hirpa ’11 and Samantha F. Drago ’11 contributed to the reporting of this story.