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Daniel Gilbert Stumbles onto Something Big

Perhaps no one knows better than Daniel Gilbert that when Stumbling on Happiness achieves bestseller status across the country—and it will, just wait—the author won't feel quite as ecstatic about the accomplishment as he might have hoped. But the irony goes deeper: Gilbert being Gilbert, he'll take real pleasure from his own lackluster response. Daniel Gilbert

Now that you're thoroughly confused, here's why: You're human.

We fear that a tragedy will ruin our lives. We imagine that money, marriage, or travel will bring lasting satisfaction. For better or worse, we're making mountains out of molehills. Humans alone among animals can imagine the future, Gilbert posits; unfortunately, our imagination isn't especially accurate.

The author, who once upon a time dropped out of high school to travel and write science fiction, in the last decade has pioneered a field of research he calls "affective forecasting," which is a fancy way of saying that the Harvard psychologist wants to know why people consistently overestimate the emotional impact of future events.

Of course we suffer; and, yes, the pain is real. Likewise, the fortunate among us will someday bask in the profound joy of a dream come true. Reliably, however, and with rare exceptions, we expect the pain or joy to change us irrevocably—and that's precisely where we're mistaken. When it comes to predicting how this or that experience will make us feel, oddly enough, we hardly know ourselves from the stranger next door.

Dave: You mention in the book that your father is a biologist, but you didn't exactly follow his footsteps straight to the lab. You dropped out of high school, you traveled. What brought you to psychology?

Daniel Gilbert: The glib answer is "a bus," but let me unpack that for you. I was living in Denver, Colorado, and I was maybe nineteen or twenty years old. I had dropped out of high school; I was married; I had a child; and I was working. I was working hard at night to be a science fiction writer. It occurred to me one day that I might actually learn something by going down to the local community college and taking a course in writing. After all, as a high school dropout, not only had I never had a writing course, I wasn't a particularly good speller.

So I got on the bus and I went down to the local community college. By the time I got down there, they said the course on writing was full. It had been a very long bus ride, so I said, "Alright, fine. What's open?" They looked and they told me, "Psychology." I thought, That's got something to do with crazy people; maybe I'll write a story about a crazy person some day. I told them to sign me up.

It was a bit of a revelation. It wasn't about crazy people. It was about all of us. What got me so excited was that psychologists seemed to be asking all the same questions I'd been asking myself my entire life—about mind and the nature of mind, about the nature of human experience, how we got to be who we are—but I'd been reading Be Here Now and Krishamurti to get to that, and there was something basically unsatisfying about philosophy for me. It was full of great ideas, but the answers were anybody's guess.

Suddenly I'd stumbled on this science where people were doing experiments, trying to get answers to philosophical questions. Whether I was hooked from the first moment or the seventh week, I don't know, but that course turned into a couple of others, which turned into going to a real college, which turned into graduate school, which turned into, dot-dot-dot, the book you're holding in your hands.

I did everything I could not to fall into my father's footsteps, but like a lot of people...

Dave: Like a lot of people, you had some trouble imagining your own future. You didn't see it coming.

Gilbert: I really didn't see it coming.

One of the distinctions I try to make in the book is the difference between trying to tell the future and trying to know how you'll feel once you get there. We all know that the future is opaque. Nobody expects that they can tell what the price of stock will be a year from now, whether there will be a third World War, whether global warming will get us before we get it, et cetera. What we aren't very confident about is that we know how much we will like those things if we get them.

My book is not about how good people are at predicting the future; it's about how good they are at predicting their emotional reactions to the future.

I do suspect that most of us look back and tell creation stories about how we got to where we are. There's a sense of inevitability to the stories. You turn to a person who's a successful biochemist, and they remember being interested in cells and animals; there's an orderly progression from the crib to this moment. My guess is there's a lot more luck and chance involved, a lot more stumbling than anybody really guesses.

I told you at more length than I should have about the bus ride because clearly, if cartography had been the course that was open, we'd now be talking about my book on maps. I'd be explaining about how I'd always been interested in continents and where things were. It's a fluke of which course was open on the particular afternoon when that kid who was looking for something in life stumbled in.

Dave: You'd think that happiness would be an overriding concern of psychology. Why aren't we better at finding happiness or sustaining it or even knowing what it is? But this is a relatively new field of study, or a new approach, is that fair to say?

Gilbert: It is and it isn't. Was it Robert Heinlein who said that there are only three plots in all of fiction? Boy meets girl, little man makes good... and I've forgotten the third one. One could say, with only three plots in fiction, after about five or six books wouldn't we be out of ideas? And yet there's some sense in which each generation of authors takes the same basic ingredients of human plot and creates new and different narratives that intrigue us.

It would be wrong to say nobody has thought of human happiness until ten years ago in experimental psychology. Of course that's not true. Psychologists, in some sense, have been preoccupied with the problem of human happiness from the inception of psychology. Yet the way it's being treated, I think, is new. We're telling new stories and hence discovering new facts about happiness. We're asking slightly different questions. That's one piece of the answer.

The other part of the answer is that scientists all have physics envy. At whatever level of science you are working, the level just beneath you seems a little more scientific. Biologists kind of envy biochemists who kind of envy chemists who kind of envy physicists. Everybody wants to wear a slightly whiter coat. Part of the reason happiness has eluded us, to the extent that it has, is that it sounds soft and squishy. It doesn't sound like hippocampal lesions. Now there's something you can study. You can take a picture of them, you can dissect them, you have to wash your hands afterwards. That's science.

You referred to the line about my dad. It comes from a story: My brother and sister and I are sitting on the couch one day. We're all grown. My brother is a lawyer, my sister is a professor of communications, and I'm a psychologist. My father looks at the three of us and says, "You know, I love my children and I'm very proud of you, but I wonder why none of you followed in my footsteps and went into science." I said, "Dad!"

So I think that happiness has seemed like too soft a topic, but I hope what I show in my book is that soft topics are often more important than hard topics. They, too, can be approached scientifically. That's what so exciting to me about the area in which I work. Once again going back to the philosophy story: We can take big ideas, the important stuff that has engaged human beings for at least the last two thousand years, and look at them objectively. You can't take a picture of happiness. But because you can't get a photograph of it or a brain scan, that doesn't mean you can't approach it scientifically by creating operational definitions, by creating experiments with control groups, by measuring lots of people who have been randomly selected. That's what my life has been an attempt to do, and the book is an attempt to sum up what we've been doing.

Dave: Was there a particular study, or a revelation, that convinced you that you were on to something?

Gilbert: I spent the first ten or fifteen years of my career studying something completely different, what psychologists call causal attribution. I only meant to do one little study on this topic to satisfy my curiosity and then get back to my real work. And of course what happened is my real work completely evaporated. I've never done anything in that original area again.

The impetus for this was that in the early nineties I had a series of experiences. I went through a divorce, I had a parent die, my mentor died, my best friend and I had a falling-out, my son got in very deep trouble—all sorts of horrible things happened to me. And I was, well...alright. I wasn't euphoric. It was a pretty low point in my life. But I got up every day and went to my job, and I actually found there were nice moments in almost every day.

There were two hypotheses. One was: Wow, I'm a heartless son of a bitch.

The other went: I'm not happy, but I'm not nearly as distraught as I would have predicted a year ago if I'd known these things were going to happen. I wonder if it's just me.

So I was talking to my friend and colleague, Tim Wilson, about this, and we decided to do a couple studies to find out whether people were good or bad at predicting their emotional responses to events, and whether they tended to make the same mistake I had: to overestimate the dire consequences of negative events and, by implication, the positive consequences of happy events.

We did a couple studies; they appeared in a paper, I think, in '98. The studies confirmed what we had suspected. In a series of studies ranging from field to laboratory, they showed that people overestimate their emotional reactions to future events. Professors who do and don't get tenure are equally happy five years later, but young professors who are predicting the effects of tenure think that getting it or not getting it will have a dramatic effect on their lives. We also studied, coincidentally, the first election a young man named George Bush ever ran in, the gubernatorial election in Texas. People who voted for him thought they would be much happier if he won than if he lost, but as it turned out, democrats and republicans were equally happy a month after the election.

On and on. We found this in the laboratory, we found it in the field. The finding was so robust that we couldn't not find it. Every single study we did showed precisely the same effects, with groups as diverse as professors getting tenure and college students falling in love. We knew we were on to something very fundamental that wasn't going to go away. And then the next question is: Why? The first paper established that there is a phenomenon. All the papers subsequently have been to establish its causes and consequences.

Dave: Our "psychological immune system," as you call it, moderates our good and bad experiences—none of those experiences turn out to affect our happiness as dramatically as we expect. But when people overcome a trauma, they still don't trust that immune system entirely. Do people get much better at it as they get older?

Gilbert: No one has yet done studies on affective forecasting over the course of a lifespan. I think it would be very exciting to do.

Is it possible that as we age, we get better at this? My own suspicion is yes. Grandparents are a little better at this than teenagers are. You think of adolescence as a period that's typified by dire forecasts. If I get a pimple, I'm going to shoot myself! The grandparently equivalent is rare.

On the other hand, with that said, people clearly don't learn as much as they might, as quickly as they might. There are a lot of reasons why. Think of what it takes to learn that you've made an affective forecasting error. First, you must make a forecast and remember it; second, you must have an experience and remember it correctly; and third, you must be able to compare the two. These conditions aren't met often in life.

We have found in a variety of studies, for example, that people often misremember their own forecasts. We make a forecast: If my candidate loses the election, I'll feel awful. After the candidate loses, we feel alright. You ask people, "What did you predict back then?" And they say, "Oh, I knew I'd feel alright. I knew this wouldn't be a big deal." There's a self-erasing nature to errors of affective forecasting.

Another problem we've observed in research is that, under some conditions, people remember feeling exactly the way they predicted they'd feel, which is described at some length in the book. A classic example of this is a study by some other investigators: People taking one of those marvelous bike rides through Northern California—you sign up and you go for ten days with a group of like-minded people through the hills and valleys. They tracked these people before, during, and after the ride. For weeks before, they're all saying, "Oh, man, this is going to be marvelous." And afterward, they're all looking back on it, going, "It was fantastic." But when you measure people during the bike ride, they say, "My ass hurts. This guy I'm riding with is a jerk. Why am I here?"

Part of what you're seeing here is that prospection and retrospection work similarly. We remember feeling the way we thought we would feel, whether we felt like that or not. I could go on and on, but the necessary conditions for learning that you made a mistake are not usually in play. I think that's one reason why people are poor at learning from their own mistakes.

There's another set of explanations, and I'll just mention them. It's possible that errors in affective forecasting play some kind of important role. Think of it as a psychological ecosystem. Maybe those errors have a job to do; they have a role to play that we're not aware of. We don't have the answer to that question.

Dave: You suggest, "Perhaps we should give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves." But we're not so good at acting on information others give us, even when we know it's in our own best interest.

Gilbert: Nobody is in any danger of giving up on remembering and imagining. But I think what we found remarkable is how rarely we are willing to heed the experience of other people who have gone through very similar circumstances to the one we're contemplating.

You would think that if you're contemplating getting married, for example, or having children, or moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, the very first thing you would do is find out how all the other millions of people who have done this felt about it. But not only is it not the first thing we do, it's something very few people ever do. We just don't think those other people are like us. We think the dramatic differences between us and everyone else in the world basically invalidates their experience.

If somebody came out of a room and said, "Oh god, it smells awful in there," you wouldn't expect it to smell great. But by and large, with complex experiences, we have to go see for ourselves.

What our research suggests is that we're not all that dissimilar, particularly in terms of what kinds of things bring us pleasure and what kinds of things bring us pain. There's no society in which people greet each other with a smack on the head with a two-by-four. There's a reason: Nobody finds that pleasant. I might like peach ice cream and you like strawberry, but everybody likes ice cream better than cod liver oil. We can learn a lot from other people. The basis of the pleasure system in all human brains is roughly similar.

I don't want to say that it's perfect information, but it's darn good, and it's surprising how willing we are to just throw it out and trust fickle imagination instead.

Dave: Internet dating services propose that they can match singles to their ideal life partners. The Atlantic recently published a long article about the growing number of scientists recruited by eHarmony and other companies in that field.

Can they succeed? Is half the battle won just by subjugating our own ideas about what we think we want for ourselves?

Gilbert: That's a really interesting question. I read the Atlantic article too, and I was chagrined that absolutely none of the scientific systems they described seem to have been submitted to any kind of scientific scrutiny. I wondered why the word science was in there at all. It seemed to me that all of these scientists were essentially yentas in white coats. I heard about a lot of systems for matching that sounded to me like they had no basis whatsoever in scientific research.

I found that article very distressing. It wasn't inspiring from the point of view of personality psychology, which is what these people are doing. They're trying to do what everyone since Freud has been trying to do: divide people into different kinds, put them in different bins, and match them up. It turns out that psychologists have made a lot of progress doing this in the last hundred years, but it's really, really hard.

But that's not your point; your point is a much more interesting one. Is it possible that someone else could do a better job at picking for us than we could do ourselves?

Opinion seems to be divided on this, with modern Westerners in the No category and everyone else throughout history in the Yes category. We have a very unique conception of marriage and mating in our society: we marry on the basis of love, we think we do the best job anyone could. But the idea of marrying for love is very new. Marriage has traditionally been a way of cementing clan relationships and things like that.

There's very little good data comparing love matches, which is what we call Western marriages, and arranged marriages, the kind you might see in traditional parts of India or Asia. You can imagine why it would be hard to scientifically compare two kinds of marriages when people aren't randomly assigned to be in one or the other. Nonetheless, with that said, the data suggests that arranged marriages are, if not better than, at least as good as love marriages.

The thinking behind it is: When you fall in love, you are in a unique state that is about as close as you will ever get to psychosis. I mean, you're willing to abandon everything from eating to going to work, and you sit around all day with a smile on your face, going, "Oh, god. She's so wonderful." This is as close as most of us get to experiencing serious psychopathology, and it's at this particular moment of our lives that we make the most important decision we'll ever make.

A better way of doing this might be to come to it with cooler heads, have people who care about us but who can think a little more rationally make decisions for us based on factors that they can see from their long experience might be important to a long-term relationship.

That's a great example, and I wish I'd talked to you before I'd written the book because I would have put that in. It's a wonderful example of surrogation, where perhaps we should trust somebody's example over our own.

Dave: You mentioned that people have been speculating about happiness for hundreds of years. In that light it's hard not to notice that all the chapters start with a few lines from Shakespeare. He's your chorus.

Gilbert: They start with a Shakespeare quote for two simple reasons. One, to remind everybody that most of what science has to tell us about human behavior already has been divined by writers with great insight. Science helps us confirm which writers were right and which were wrong, but it rarely tells us something that a writer of Shakespeare's caliber didn't come up with first.

The more important reason Shakespeare is there is that I'm a Harvard professor. Therefore, people are supposed to believe I'm a highbrow guy with refined tastes and a serious literature collection. Actually, I like to eat tater tots and watch Star Trek. But if I put Shakespeare quotes in the beginning, everyone will think I'm the kind of guy who really ought to have a job here.

Should I have said that in an interview?

Dave: A lot of professors are breathing a little easier now. Harvard just got a bit closer. It's alright.

Gilbert: Right.

Dave: In the book, you cite a study showing that when people read their brains rush ahead trying to fill in the words that will come next. That reminded me of something Salman Rushdie said when he was here a few years ago.

Gilbert: I was just looking at that interview on your web site.

Dave: The part I'm referring to, he's talking about writing, and he says, "If you're going to try to get people to see what you want them to see, you have to take them by surprise. You have to come at it in a way that gets past habituation."

Gilbert: That's interesting.

Dave: Surprising the reader regularly enough that they can't slip into auto-pilot.

Gilbert: That's a very nice idea. Is there anything science can tell you about human behavior or the experience of the mind that you can't find in literature? I don't think so. But on the other hand, you can also find the opposite in literature. Everything that can be said about the human condition has been said by some writer. Once we get a scientific fact, it's pretty easy to go back and find the guys who got it right.

A literature professor who saw my book said, "Given that Shakespeare saw all this stuff, had these insights, why do we need science?" Well, I could also find ten places where he said exactly the opposite. If you say everything, some of it winds up being right.

Dave: You start the book by explaining that psychologists often wind up looking very silly when down the road their ideas are proved wrong. What parts of Stumbling on Happiness stand on the shakiest ground, or what's up for the most heated debate? What do you think you might discover that rearranges your thinking on this subject?

Gilbert: I teach Introduction to Psychology, the very first course that persons of freshness take when they get to Harvard. I always begin the course by telling them that half of what I teach them will turn out to be wrong; the problem is I don't know which half.

I can guarantee you that half the things in Stumbling on Happiness will turn out to be false. The beauty of science is that we just keep stumbling along, slowly accumulating facts that we can rely on. I'm talking about a lot of very new research. A lot of it is mine. There may be fifteen or twenty scientists working on related problems, and I've talked about their work, but until we have decades of research on this, with hundreds if not thousands of scientists working on the same problem, we won't know which parts are right and which are wrong.

The parts of the book about which I have the least faith are those that are based on the least data. The chapters on rationalization are based on at least a half-century of thought. On the other hand, the ending chapters on surrogation are based on a couple of experiments that were done in my laboratory.

It won't surprise me at all if in the next few years somebody comes along and shows that something in those experiments was troubling and we have to completely rethink this entire notion of surrogation. It would surprise me a great deal if somebody came along and found that really human beings are not rationalizers; there's nothing like a psychological immune system; there are no defense mechanisms. That would surprise me a great deal. So the parts that are most likely to be right are the parts that have been tried out for the longest by the most people. I hope the others are presented fairly, as more speculative.

Dave: What's next in your research?

Gilbert: I've always been a fan of stumbling, rather than making big plans and trying to get from where I am to where I want to be. We do an experiment—me and my students and my collaborator and all of my research team—and when we see the results, we decide what studies to do next. We let the data tell us where to go.

When I started writing Stumbling on Happiness six or seven years ago, I could never have written the last three chapters. A lot of that work didn't exist. A lot of the ideas didn't exist. I had no idea where the adventure would take me.

I'm afraid that's a bit of a cop-out answer, but what I do know is that I'm following my nose, following the leads of data produced in our laboratory. Every day something interesting pulls me in a direction I never could have anticipated. I think if I could have answered your question, I'd want to retire.

Dave: Have you been reading anything good lately?

Gilbert: I have been reading all sorts of good things. I've been reading Darin McMahon's Happiness: A History. It's not easy reading, but it's an extremely smart, thorough analysis of the concept of happiness. I'm almost glad it didn't exist when I started writing my book because I might not have written one if I knew there was anybody this smart who knew this much about the topic. That's been lots of fun.

I read mainly nonfiction, and I read lots of things related to my own interests. So I read Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. Splendid book. I read a wonderful book recently called Critical Mass by Philip Ball, a very smart book about the development of statistics.

This is going to be a winning list with your readers.

Dave: There's a readership for everything.

Gilbert: I'm trying to think if there's any fiction I've read recently. My wife reads a couple books of fiction every week and is constantly putting them in stacks on my desk. I look at them and go, "But nothing in there is true!" There are so many journals I have to read.

I read a book in the last year that has just blown my mind. I've now read it again: Reasons and Persons by a philosopher named Derek Parfit. I have found it to be the most eye-opening, amazing book, maybe that I've ever read, but certainly that I've read in my later adult life. His theory is nothing short of ludicrous, and yet I think he proves it.

Dave: I don't generally read philosophy, but you have me interested.

Gilbert: Anybody interested in philosophy, particularly the philosophy of time, should take a look. I guess it's quite a classic, but I didn't know about it, not being a philosopher. That's my book, the one I'm putting in people's hands, going, "You've got to read this book."

Dave: We're almost done, but we have to end on a good note so people will remember liking this interview.

Gilbert: Okay.

Dave: No pressure.

Gilbert: No.

Dave: College is certainly not a time when people have a good grip on their emotions. That must be an interesting setting for your work.

Gilbert: It's funny, I don't think of it much that way. For me, working at a university is an amazing experience. You get to hang out with all these bright, young people who are maximally enthusiastic about their futures, particularly at a place like Harvard, where those futures, by and large, are going to be pretty nice. And I don't mean enthusiastic about their ability to make money. They're so excited about the world of knowledge and the things that are out there to learn; to think and to change. And just at the point where they start to get a bit jaded, in their senior year, we get rid of them and import a whole new crop of young, naïve people who are maximally enthusiastic. It's almost like a marriage where you always get to be on the honeymoon. I'm always surrounded by people who have just arrived in the world of knowledge and are just blown away by the opportunity before them. That's a great thing.

Dave: If there's a misconception about the book or your work, something to set readers straight about, what is it?

Gilbert: That I don't study happiness. I know it's the third word in the title of my book, but I only study it incidentally. What I'm really interested in is prospection. I'm interested in how human beings manage to close their eyes and transport themselves into tomorrow, how we use imagination to conjure up images and ideas about the future.

It turns out that the entire reason we do this is to increase our share of happiness, so if you're going to study prospection, you quickly get into that realm. It's the topic that's on everybody's mind.

I'm getting to be known as some kind of Dr. Happiness, a slightly more educated version of Dr. Phil. That worries me. I don't think I know a whole lot more about happiness than anybody else. I'm asked lots of questions like, "Will meditation make me happy?" I try to remind readers, it says right in the book, first chapter: This isn't a self-help book. Those are somewhere else. When you've done everything they tell you to do and it doesn't work, you can come here and figure out why.

Daniel Gilbert called me from his home in Massachusetts on March 19, 2006.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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