Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My personal NOTES on Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness

At the Pursuit Of Happiness social club, once a month, we gather at Melrose bar and Grill and watch videos, discuss HAPPINESS. One session we discussed Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness
The following are my NOTES on:
Subjective experiences such as happiness are important... and can be studied scientifically. 
Measure HAPPINESS: We can measure a person's subjective emotional experience. People can tell you with both words and actions what they are experiencing — what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling....  essential data on which the science of experience is built.
Just like an optometrist who can create a lens that corrects your vision. By having a report of your subjective visual experience, optometry would be impossible. No "objective test" — no eye test, no blood test, and no brain test — can provide this information.... people can reliably report on their subjective experiences and those reports can be objectively collected and analyzed. As long as people can say how happy they are at the moment you ask them, you can build a science of happiness....
People value many things — from the base to the sublime, from Belgian chocolate to marital fidelity — .... because of their hedonic consequences. 
Plato: When he asked us to think about what it is that makes anything good. "Are these things good for any other reason except that they end in pleasure, and get rid of and avert pain? Are you looking to any other standard but pleasure and pain when you call them good?" .... "positive hedonic experience" is what valuing means. We can't say what's good without saying what it is good for, and if you look at all the many things people think are good, you will notice they are all good for making people happy.
The experience of saving money is not the same as the experience of saving orphans.... Both experiences can be described as a set of locations on multiple dimensions, and one of those dimensions is happiness. The two experiences give rise to different amounts of happiness, but not different kinds. The reason the experiences feel so different is that they entail different amounts of happiness as well as different amounts of everything else.
.... Science is an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions. e.g. hot and cold = manifestations of different amounts of molecular motion. oxygen and iron ....different amounts of stuff, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons.... different subjective experiences contain different amounts of happiness, which is a basic dimension or basic ingredient of experience. Experiences (with) different amounts of happiness can feel as different as air and iron, as different as hot and cold. But if orphan-saving and money-saving feel different, that fact does not invalidate my claim any more than the different rigidities of iron and air invalidates atomic theory.
.... How well can the human brain predict the sources of its own future satisfaction?....  We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future. 
1) disinformation about happiness: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things .... Because we are interested in our own happiness.... both entities fool us into believing that's what is good for them is also good for us.... We believe that having children will make us happy, that  consuming goods and services will make us show that money has minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and that parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children....
So what happens if we try to disregard the genetic and cultural imperatives and just figure it all out for ourselves? What happens if we just close our eyes, imagine different possible futures, and try to decide which one would make us happiest?
Research shows that when people try to simulate future events — and to simulate their emotional reactions to those events — they make systematic errors. (We) take the ability to imagine the future for granted... this is one of our species' most recently acquired abilities — no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to simulate the future is one of nature's newest inventions, so it isn't surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. The main error, of course, is that we vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate. This "impact bias" has proved quite robust in both field and laboratory settings.
.... we don't seem to learn all that much from our own experience. To learn from experience requires that we be able to remember it, and research shows that people are about as bad at remembering their past emotions as they are predicting their future emotions. That's why we make the same errors again and again. For example, in one of our studies, Democrats predicted they'd be devastated if Bush won the 2004 presidential election, and as we always find, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted. But several months after the election, they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors. Retrospection and prospection share many of the same biases and hence reinforce each other.
You may think that it would be good to feel happy at all times, but we have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: That word is dinner.
Negative emotions.... when people think about how terribly wrong things might go and find themselves feeling angry or afraid, they take actions to make sure that things go terribly right instead... We manipulate our children and our employees by threatening them with dire consequences, so too do we manipulate ourselves by imagining dire consequences. People can be so anxious that their anxiety is debilitating... Anxiety and fear are what keep us from touching hot stoves, committing adultery, and sending our children to play on the freeway. If someone offered you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on north is worthless.
People make errors when (trying) to forecast their future feelings.... I can make up a story about why an affective forecasting error provides a selective advantage (e.g., I overestimate how bad I'll feel if my children die, hence I go to extraordinary lengths to protect them). But then you can make up a story about how it provides a disadvantage (e.g., I overestimate how bad I'll feel if I am rejected, hence I fail to ask women for sex). At the end of our story-telling we will have several stories and not a whole lot more. What we need, and what we do not have, is some principled way to calculate and then compare the costs and benefits of these errors.
... Errors are bad; it is better to be able to predict the future than not; knowing what will make us happy increases our ability to attain it....  We have great big brains that can foresee the future in a way that no other animal ever has... our own species could not just a few million years ago. Foresight isn't twenty-twenty.... in general it allows us to glimpse the long-term consequences of our actions and to take measures to avoid the bad ones and promote the good ones.
... variety is the spice of life... variety is not just over-rated, it may actually have a cost. Research shows that people do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different doughnut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favorite on every visit — provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time.... If you had to eat 4 donuts in rapid succession, variety would indeed spice up your experience and you'd be wise to seek it. But if you had to eat 4 donuts on 4 separate Mondays, variety would lower your overall enjoyment. The human brain has tremendous difficulty reasoning about time, and thus we tend to seek variety whether the doughnuts are separated by minutes or months.... 
Even in a technologically sophisticated society, some people retain the romantic notion that human unhappiness results from the loss of our primal innocence. I think that's nonsense. Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better in a simpler past, but the fact is that things are easier and better today than at any time in human history.
Our primal innocence is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and it is not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. It gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis or the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be because we embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to an ancient Eden that never really was.

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