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C'mon, get happy!

A Harvard psychologist finds that joy is a tricky thing to predict

Daniel Gilbert's new book focuses on people's distorted ideas of what will make them happy.
Daniel Gilbert's new book focuses on people's distorted ideas of what will make them happy. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

CAMBRIDGE — Happiness is a bundle of mysteries. How to get it. How to know it when you’ve got it. Why some people seem happy even when their luck is rotten while others languish in misery as they go from one triumph to the next.

One of the subtler mysteries is the subject of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s new book, ‘‘Stumbling on Happiness’’: What will make us happy in the future? You may think you know, but Gilbert’s finding, after years of research, is that people are lousy at predicting what will make them happy or unhappy.

Gilbert is a bouncy, irrepressible, articulate, 48-year-old professor whose own research (and that of his graduate students) underlies much of his book. Yes, teachers are supposed to be articulate, but few scientists speak with his quotable clarity and puckish sallies. During an interview in his office, he spoke as if his lifework is just the most fun thing and he never tires of celebrating it.

His field is social psychology. Around 1993, he said, ‘‘a friend and I were exchanging stories about the ways life had surprised us, and it had surprised us in similar ways. When bad things happened, we were doing better than we had expected. And the good things that happened, accolades and achievements, were not as good as we expected.’’ He looked for the scientific literature on this phenomenon but found there was none. Thus began years of research on people’s expectations of happiness, and why they’re usually wrong.

‘‘To me it was a lunch, to him it was a research paradigm,’’ said Jonathan Jay Koehler, who teaches behavioral decisionmaking at the University of Texas. ‘‘That’s the difference between Dan Gilbert and the rest of us. He took the idea and ran with it.’’

‘‘When I started studying this topic,’’ Gilbert said, ‘‘I was amazed at how robust the data was. Everywhere we looked, we saw the same results. People overestimated the hedonic [i.e., pleasure-giving] consequences of future events — ‘If that future thing happens, it’s going to make me feel great for a long time, but if that bad thing happens, I’ll be devastated.’ Neither prediction turned out to be right. We looked at voting, falling in love, sporting events, medical results — every time, the same phenomenon appears. The other discovery was the almost universal denial of this phenomenon.’’

It seems we’re all hopelessly infected with ‘‘presentism,’’ the tendency to think that how we feel about something now is how we will feel about it in the future (it works backward, too — how we feel now affects our memory of how we felt in the past). This tendency affects big and small things, the near as well as distant future. One study, for example, showed that when people do weekly food shopping after a large meal, without a list, they buy less for the next week than they need. On an empty stomach, they buy too much.

Another reason for the distortion, Gilbert says, is that when we think about the future we conjure peak moments or experiences. We imagine a wonderful or terrible moment and exclude everything else: ‘‘People say, ‘If I get that job, I’ll have happiness.’ If you get the job, you’ll experience happiness upon getting it. You may also experience happiness on and off while you’re doing it. But you can’t think of a job or car or marriage as putting you in a state of happiness for the rest of your life.’’

Likewise, when asked to imagine an accidental death in the family, all that most people can imagine is shock, horror, and misery. But research shows that when horrible things happen (or less horrible things, such as job loss or divorce), most people bear up better than they would have predicted and do not become permanently unhappy or depressed.

Hooked on psychology

Though Gilbert’s own life seems fairly ordinary — he’s married, with an adult son by a first marriage, and a grandchild — it had decidedly unconventional turns.

‘‘I am one of the very few tenured professors on the Harvard faculty who doesn’t have a high school diploma,’’ he said.

Raised near Chicago, son of an entomologist father and actress/artist mother, he hated school and dropped out at age 15. ‘‘I hitchhiked around the country, played my guitar, grew long hair, and read Eastern philosophy. I was into questions of the mind,’’ he said. ‘‘What it is, how it came to be, why I feel like myself, all the things teens care about.’’

In his late teens, he settled in Denver and tried to be a science fiction writer, ‘‘pounding out stories on my little typewriter, sending them off and having them rejected. After I wrote about 30, an editor took pity on me and bought some. I thought, ‘I’m a real writer now,’ but I didn’t know anything about literature, wasn’t even a good speller.’’ He applied to take an English course at a community college, but all the sections were full. He took a psychology course instead and soon became hooked on the subject.

‘‘It occurred to me that I could learn a lot more about psychology if I went to a real university,’’ he said, ‘‘so I went to the University of Colorado at Denver and said, ‘Would it bother you if I didn’t have a high school diploma?’ They said, ‘If you take the GED test and pass it, we could overlook it.’ So I took it, passed it, spent four years there, went to Princeton for a PhD, taught at the University of Texas for 11 years, and have been at Harvard since 1996.’’

Gilbert’s teaching methods are legendary. Koehler, his friend from Texas, had a stint as a visiting professor at Harvard and attended the first session of Gilbert’s statistics class. ‘‘It was a large class,’’ Koehler said, ‘‘and he came in and started roaring around the stage, like an animal. After that silly act, he said, ‘That, ladies and gentlemen, is as frightened as you should ever be of statistics.’.’’

Daniel Gilbert takes pleasure in uncostly, uncomplicated things. He enjoys walking to work. He loves to write. He likes weird jazz, what he calls ‘‘the sound of an animal dying in a blender,’’ and playing his guitar. He always wears cargo pants (except in the shower, he says) that he buys in quantity at Costco. ‘‘I don’t like to do things that take me far out of my chair. I love nature, so I have the Discovery Channel. I love traveling, so I get magazines. All the things I enjoy in life are in my mind.’’

‘‘Stumbling on Happiness’’ is not a self-help book. But given his choice of subject, Gilbert can’t avoid the Big Question.

‘‘If someone said to me, ‘Dan, you’ve read the scientific literature. What do you think is the secret to happiness?’ I would say, ‘Stop working so hard to earn money, and spend more time with family and friends.’ We know from the data that after a certain level of income, more money doesn’t make more happiness. It’s also clear that one of the best predictors of happiness is the extent and goodness of social networks.’’

But it seems that people don’t want that answer.

‘‘Every rabbi, philosopher, and grandmother has been telling us that for 2,000 years,’’ Gilbert said. ‘‘What we want to hear is, ‘Assume the following position, cross your knees and hum, take this pill.’ We want a quick fix and we want something exotic. We want unhappiness to be cured like an infection, with a magic medicine. It’s not going to happen.’’

Discomfort and joy

So what is happiness?

‘‘In English, happiness is a noun, and we often make the mistake of thinking that nouns are things we possess,’’ Gilbert said. ‘‘Happiness is a property of events, not something in and of itself. It’s a compass. What good is a compass that is always stuck on north? We are meant to move between happiness and unhappiness, and the game of life is to try to get over to happiness as often as possible, knowing that you will inevitably come back to unhappiness as well.’’

Is it hopeless, then, to try to plan our future happiness? Not quite, according to Gilbert. We might just stumble on it, as the book title suggests. Aside from that, Gilbert says experiments show that the best way to find out whether we will be happy or unhappy with a future circumstance is not to try to imagine it but to consult those we trust who have been there, done that.

As with Grandmother’s advice, though, we don’t want that answer.

‘‘People are convinced that they are unique, that everybody likes different things,’’ Gilbert said. However, he insists, ‘‘People agree about 95 percent on what brings happiness.’’ Almost everyone likes family, friends, sex, good food, gorgeous sunsets, and laughter. Almost no one thinks nausea, war, poverty, grave illness, or an earthquake will make them happy. ‘‘Human beings are remarkably similar in what they like, but they disagree at the margins, and these disagreements loom larger than they really are.’’

So, is Daniel Gilbert happy? One expects a nuanced, carefully qualified answer, but here was another surprise.

‘‘I am a very happy guy,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. ‘‘Not all the time, but usually. My guess is that it has to do with the two women who occasionally sit on my lap. One is my wife, and the other is my granddaughter. Both are beautiful and smart, but only one can be bribed with candy (which is how I got her to marry me).’’

David Mehegan can be reached at

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