Sunday, August 20, 2006

*** Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Excellent book at telling you how wrong you are about what really makes you happy. I highly recommend 'Happiness: The science behind your smile' by Daniel Nettle as well to help round out your happy book reading. Here's the blog on that book if you're interested.

The human brain is an ‘anticipation machine’ and ‘making future’ is the most important thing it does. P5

All brains – human, chimp, squirrel brains – make predictions about immediate local personal future by using info about current events ‘I smell something’ and past events ‘last time I smelled this a big thing tried to eat me’ to anticipate what is most likely to happen next. Predictions such as these don’t require the brain making them to have anything remotely resembling conscious thought… Predictions such as these are not particularly far reaching. Rather these are predictions about what will happen in precisely this spot, precisely next, to precisely me. P6

Patients w/frontal lobe damage often performed well on intelligence, memory tests and the like, but they showed severe impairments on any test – even the simplest – that involve planning… They [even] found it impossible to say what they would do later that afternoon. P13

The frontal lobe ‘empowers healthy human adults with capacity to consider the self’s extended existence through time.’ P14

For the 1st few 100M years after their initial appearance on our planet, all brains were stuck in the permanent present, and most brains still are today. But not ours, because 2 to 3M years ago our ancestors began a great escape from the here and now, and their getaway vehicle was a highly specialized mass of fragile, wrinkled, gray tissue – the frontal lobe, which was the last part of the brain to evolve, the slowest to mature, and the first to deteriorate in old age. It is a time machine that allows each of us to vacate the present, and experience the future before it happens. P15

About 12% of our daily thoughts are about the future – 2 hours for every 16 waking hours in a day. Which is to say that in some very real sense, each of us is a part-time resident of tomorrow. P16

Some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience (most of us can recall an instance when we made love with a desirable partner or ate a rich dessert, only to find the act was better contemplated than consummated) and in these cases people may decide to delay the event forever. Volunteers were asked to imagine themselves requesting a date with a person on whom they had a major crush, and those who had the most elaborate and delicious fantasies were least likely to approach their heartthrob over the next few months. P17

Forecast can be ‘fearcasts’ whose purpose is not to predict the future so much as to preclude it, and studies have shown that this strategy is often an effective way to motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior. In short, we imagine dark futures to scare our own pants off. P19

Researchers gave elderly residents at a nursing home a house plant. ½ were told to take care of the plant, and the other ½ were told that the plant will be taken care of for them. 6 months later, only 15% of the high control residents who had to take care of the plants died, while 30% of the low control residents died… A follow up study confirmed the importance of perceived control, but had an unexpected and unfortunate end. Researchers had students come to visit the residents. The high control group was allowed to schedule the date and duration of the visit, while the low control group were not (I’ll come visit you on Thursday from 1 to 2). After 2 months, high control residents were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer meds than those in the low control group. At this point the study was discontinued. Several months later, a disproportionate number of high control residents had died. Only in retrospect did the cause of this tragedy seem clear. The residents who had been given control, and who had benefited measurably from that control, were inadvertently robbed of control when the study ended. Apparently gaining control can have a positive impact, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all. P21

We have a large frontal lobe so that we can look into the future, we look into the future so that we can make predictions about it, we make predictions about it so we can control it –but why do we want to control it? Why not just let the future unfold as it will, and experience it as it does? The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control- not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself…The wrong answer is that our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable. People bet more on games of chance when they control the dice or choose the numbers on the ticket… Why isn’t fun to watch a taped game whose outcome is already decided – even when you don’t know who won? As if somehow our cheering will penetrate the TV, travel through the cable and influence the trajectory of the ball as it hurtles toward the goalposts! There’s one group of people who are immune to this type of simulated control – the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situations. P22

Other animals must experience an event in order to learn from it, but our powers of foresight allow us to imagine that which has not yet happened and hence spare ourselves the hard lessons of experience… We want – and we should want – to control the direction of our boat because some futures are better than others, and even from this distance we should be able to tell which are which. P23

In an exhaustive search of the medical literature, the ‘desire to remain together to be so widespread among communicating conjoined twins as to be practically universal. So why then do we strive so hard to separate them over their own stated desire to stay connected? Either the conjoined twins or everyone else in the world who’s not a conjoined twin is dreadfully wrong when they talk about happiness. P30

Volunteers were shown color swatches (think of those samples at the paint store), and allowed to study it for 5s. Some volunteers were asked to describe the color for 30s, while others did not describe what they saw. All were then shown 6 color swatches and were asked to pick out the original color. Only 33% of the describers were able to do this. But 73% of the non-describers could accurately find the original color. Describing the color impaired, rather than improved performance. Apparently, the describers verbal descriptions, overwrote their memories of the experience themselves, and they remembers what they said, not what they saw. P41

Experiments have demonstrated that the moment we encounter an object, our brain instantly analyze just a few of its key features, and then use the presence or absence of these features to make one very fast and simple decision “is this an important thing to which I must respond to now? As such our brains are designed to decide 1st whether objects count, and decide later what those objects are. This means that when you turn your head turns to the left, there is a fraction of a second during which your brain doesn’t know that it is looking at a rabid wolverine, but does know that it is seeing something scary. P57

Research demonstrates that there is enough info in the very early general stages of this identification process to decide whether an object is scary, but not enough to know what the object is. Once the brain determines that they are in the presence of something scary they instruct our glands to produce hormones that create a state of heightened physical arousal which prepares us to spring into action. Before our brains have finished the full scale analysis that will allow us to know that the object is a rabid wolverine, they have already put our bodies into their ready to run away mode all pumped up and raring to go. The fact that we can feel aroused without knowing exactly what it is that has aroused us has important implications. For example, researchers had an attractive woman interview men who were crossing a narrow, rickety bridge (the Capilano Suspension bridge in Vancouver). The woman performed a survey and offered her number to explain the survey results if they were interested. Those men whom she had interviewed while on the bridge were much more likely to call her than those whom she interviewed after they had already crossed the bridge. Why? The men who met the woman while on the shaking, swaying bridge were experiencing intense physiological arousal, which they normally would have identified with fear. But because they were being interviewed by an attractive woman, they mistakenly identified as sexual arousal. Apparently, feelings that one interprets as fear in the presence of a sheer drop may be interpreted as lust in the present of a sheer blouse – which is simply to say that people can be wrong about they’re feeling. P58

Our visual experience and our awareness of that experience are generated by different parts of our brains, and as such certain kinds of brain damage can impair one without impairing the other. For example people suffering from blindsight have no awareness of seeing, and will truthfully tell you that they are blind. Brain scans will lend credence to their claims by revealing diminished activity in the areas associated with awareness of visual experience, while the same scans will reveal normal activity in the areas associated with vision. So if we flash a light on the wall and ask the blindsighted person if she saw the light, she’ll say no. But if we ask her to guess where a light might have appeared, she guesses correctly far more often than we would expect by chance. P62

Volunteers were shown a series of slides depicting a red car as it cruises toward a yield sign, turns right and then knocks over a pedestrian. Some volunteers were asked ‘Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?’ Others were not asked anything. Next the volunteers were shown a slide of the red car approaching a yield sign and of the same car approaching a stop sign, and were asked to point to the picture they had seen. 80% of the questioned volunteers pointed to the stop sign picture. 90% of the non-questioned volunteers pointed to the yield sign. Clearly the question changed the memories of the earlier experience, which is precisely what one would expect if their brains were reweaving their experiences, and precisely what one would not expect if their brains were retrieving from experiences. P79

Volunteers were asked to describe the details of a future restaurant visit on a special occasion and were then told they should assume that each of these details was perfectly accurate. Other volunteers were not asked to describe these details were not told to make any assumptions. The non-describers were every bit as confident as the describers were in the future event. Why? Because the non-describers quickly and unconsciously generated a mental image of a particular dish at a particular restaurant, and then assumed these details were accurate without prompting. [It seems that we do these things naturally.] p91

Volunteers played a deduction game in which they were shown a trigram (3 letter combos such as SXY, GTR, BCG, EVX, etc.). They were asked to find the one trigram that didn’t fit the pattern. [This isn’t easy by the way.] It took the avg volunteer (1/2 of the group) 34 sets of trigrams before they figured out that the trigram with the letter T was the one out of synch. The other ½ of the volunteer group was asked to figure out trigrams that lacked the letter T. No matter how many sets they saw, none of the volunteers ever figured this out. It was easy[more like possible] to notice the letter, but impossible to notice its absence... The general inability to think about absences is a potent source of error. P98

Imagine you’re going on vacation to 1 of 2 islands: Moderacia (where everything is totally avg), and Extremia (which has some items being the very best, coupled with others that are quite bad). Most people pick Extremia. Now assume that you have reservations for both places, and you must cancel one of your trips. Which would you cancel? Most people again pick Extremia. Why would people both select and reject Extremia? Because when they are selecting, they consider the positive attributes, and when rejecting they consider the negative. [In both of these comparisons against Moderacia, Extremia comes out ahead so to speak.] P100

Most Americans can be classified as one of 2 types: Those who live in CA and are happy that they do, and those who don’t but believe they’d be happy if they did. [What about the Californians that live here and aren’t happy, or the folks who live outside CA who wouldn’t be happy? Guess such strange notions don’t really exist. Kinda makes you wonder about the rest of the US.] Yet research shows that Californians are no happier than anyone else – so why does everyone, including Californians, seem to believe that they are? People outside of CA imagine CA with so few details, and we make no allocations for the fact that the details we are failing to imagine could drastically alter the conclusions we draw. [Things like traffic, housing prices, smog, cost of living, earthquakes, etc.These same things that non-natives forget to consider, turn out to be the things that drag down the happiness of the Californians. But there’s more.] Californians in turn tend to underestimate the happiness of people outside the state [How can you possibly be happy in Kansas? Well most of the things that make you happy are not related to the weather, geography, or proximity to Hollywood/Silicon Valley nexus as it turns out. People in Kansas can actually have family, friends, pets, sports, schools, shopping centers, restaurants, etc. They can actually fashion a life!] p104

Most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days. On the other hand, those same people would rather receive $19 today than $20 tomorrow… Why does this happen? The vivid detail of the near future makes it much more palpable than the far future, thus we feel much more anxious and excited when we imagine events that will take place soon than when we imagine events that will take place later. P107

When people who have recently eaten have to decide [while shopping] what they will eat next week, they reliably underestimate the extent of their future appetites… These folks just find it difficult to imagine being hungry… What is true of sated stomachs is true of sated minds. Researchers challenged volunteers to answer 5 geographical questions and told them they’d receive 1 of 2 rewards: either they’d learn the correct answers or get a candy bar w/o knowing answers. Some had to choose before the test, and the rest had to choose after. People preferred the candy bar before the quiz, but they preferred the answers after the quiz. Taking the quiz made them so curious that they valued the answers more than the scrumptious candy bar. But do people know this will happen? A new was asked to predict what they would choose in both before and after circumstances, and these volunteers predicted they would choose the candy bar in both cases. These volunteers – who had not yet experienced the intense curiosity that taking the quiz produced – simply couldn’t imagine that they would ever forsake a Snickers for a few dull facts about cities and rivers. P116

The region of your brain activated when you see objects with your eyes is also activated when you inspect mental images with your mind’s eye… When people imagine sounds, they show activation in the auditory cortex, which is normally activated only when we hear real sounds. P117

Prefeeling often allows us to predict our emotions better than logical thinking does. One group was encouraged to make their choices quickly from the gut (nonthinkers). The other group was asked to think logically about why they might like or dislike their selection… Prefeeling allowed non-thinkers to predict their future satisfaction more accurately than thinkers did. Indeed, when people are prevented from feeling emotion in the present, they become temporarily unable to predict how they will feel in the future. P121

92% of people who had just worked out on a treadmill predicted that thirst would be more unpleasant than hunger if lost in the woods. Only 61% of others who had not worked out said that thirst would be more unpleasant. [Your current feelings greatly affect your ability to predict your future feelings.]… It is only natural that we should imagine the future and then consider how doing so makes us feel, but because our brains are hell-bent on responding to current events, we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today. p123-4

Wonderful things are wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition… On successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologist call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage. P130

Time and variety are two ways to avoid habituation, and if you have one , then you don’t need the other. In fact, when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary – it can actually be costly [because you could enjoy the thing that gives you the greatest pleasure each time instead of settling for your 2nd or 3rd choice which variety would dictate]. P131

We can inspect a mental image and see who is doing what and where, but not when they are doing it. In general, mental images are atemporal. P134

When people are asked if they would prefer a job which pays $30k the 1st year, $40k the 2nd, and $50k the 3rd vs. a job which they earned $60k then $50k then $40k, they generally prefer the job with increasing wages, despite the fact that the they would earn $30k less over the 3 years! P137

The human brain is not particularly sensitive to the absolute magnitude of stimulation, but is extraordinarily sensitive to differences and changes – that is, to the relative magnitude… For instance, most of us would be willing to drive across town to save $50 on a $100 item, but not to save the same $50 on the purchase of a $100k car. Economists shake their head because $50 is $50, so if it is worth driving across town for $50 for the cheap item, then it should be worth $50 for the expensive item. The problem is human being don’t think in terms of absolute dollars. They think in terms of relative dollars (percentage off). P138

Imagine that you have a $20 bill and $20 concert ticket, but when you arrive at the concert you realize that you’ve lost the ticket. Would you buy a new one? Most people say no. Now imagine instead you have 2 $20 bills, and when you arrive at the concert, you realize that you’ve lost one of the bills. Would you buy the ticket? Most people say yes… When we lose the $20 bill and contemplate buying the ticket for the first time, the concert has no past [value], hence we correctly compare the cost of seeing the concert with other possibilities [for our $20 bill]. But when we lose a ticket we’ve previously purchased and contemplate replacing it, the concert has a past [value], and hence we compare the current cost of $40 vs. the past cost of $20 and feel disinclined to see a performance whose price has suddenly doubled. P141

Why do we love new things when we buy them and then stop loving them shortly thereafter? We naturally compare the new item with the old, outdated ones that it replaces. But after just a few day of using our new item, we stop comparing them with the old, and – well, what do you know? The delight that the comparison produced evaporates. P145

Most of us would refuse a bet that gives you an 85% chance of doubling your life savings and a 15% of chance of losing it. The prospect of a big gain just doesn’t compensate for the unlikely prospect of a big loss because we think losses are more powerful than equal sized gains. P145 [Take this bet! You’ll double your money nearly 7 out of 8 times!]

More than ½ the people in the US will experience a trauma such as rape, assault or natural disaster in their lifetimes, only a small fraction will ever develop any post-traumatic stress or require professional assistance. Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event. Indeed, studies of those who survive major traumas show that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience. P152

Negative events affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to… We consistently overestimate how awful we’ll feel and how long we’ll awful when we predict how we’ll feel after a trauma. [That’s why] able bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming dis-abled than the disabled are willing to pay to become able bodied again because the able bodied underestimate how happy disabled people are. P153

As soon as our potential experience becomes our actual experience – as soon as we have a stake in its goodness – our brains get busy looking for ways to think about the experience that will allow us to appreciate it. P160

When we face the pain of rejection, loss, misfortune, and failure, the psychological immune system must not defend us too well (I’m perfect and everyone is against me) and must not fail to defend us (I’m a loser and I ought to be dead). A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it. P162

People with life threatening illnesses such as cancer are particularly likely to compare themselves with those who are in worse shape, which explains why 96% of cancer patients claim to be in better health than the avg cancer patient… And if we can’t find people who are doing more poorly than we are, we may go out and create them. Volunteers in a study were given the opportunity to help or hinder a friend’s performance. When told the test was a game, the volunteers helped their friends, but when told it was a test of intellectual ability, they actively hindered their friends. P167

Volunteers were required to consider evidence before they were willing to conclude that the person was truly smart. Interestingly, they required much more evidence when the person was an unbearable pain in the ass than when the person was funny, kind and friendly. When we want to believe that someone is smart, then a single letter of recommendation may suffice, but when we don’t want to believe that, we may demand a thick manila folder full of transcripts, tests, testimonials, etc. p170

When watching a computer screen on which words appear for just a few milliseconds, volunteers are unaware of seeing them and are unable to guess them. But they are influenced by them. When the word ‘hostile’ is flashed, they judge others negatively. When the word ‘elderly’ is flashed, they walk slowly. When ‘stupid’ is flashed, they perform poorly on tests. When they are later asked to explain why they judged, walked, scored the way they did, 2 things happen: 1st they don’t know, and 2nd, they don’t say ‘I don’t know’. Instead, their brains quickly consider the facts of which they aware, and draw the same kinds of plausible but mistaken inferences about themselves that an observer would draw (I walked slowly because I’m tired). P173

Deliberate attempts to cook the facts that are transparent make us feel cheap… For positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly. We accomplish this by unconsciously cooking the facts and consciously consuming them. P174

People of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends. But why do people regret inactions more than actions? The psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inaction than of actions. P179

Intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while mild suffering does not, and this counterintuitive fact can make it difficult for us to predict our emotional futures… This possibility was tested in which 2 volunteers took a personality test and then one of them received feedback form the psychologist. The feedback was professional, detailed, and relentingly negative. Both volunteers read the feedback and then reported how much they like psychologist… Ironically the volunteer who was the victim of the negative feedback liked the psychologist more than did the bystander volunteer. Why? The bystander was miffed ‘Man that was a crummy thing to do to the other volunteer), but they were not devastated, hence their immune systems did nothing to ameliorate their mildly negative feelings. But victims were devastated (I’m a certified loser!), hence their brains quickly went shopping for a positive view of the experience. Now here’s the important finding: When a new group was asked how much they would like the psychologist, they predicted they would like him less if they were the victim than the bystander. Apparently, people are not aware of the fact their defenses are more likely to be triggered by intense rather than mild suffering. P182

We are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than of the things we’re not… It is only when we can’t change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we the clunker, the shabby family cabin, and Uncle Sheldon despite his predilection for nasal spelunking. P183

Unexplained events have 2 qualities that amplify and extend their emotional impact. 1st they strike us a rare and unusual… Explanations allow us to understand how and why an event happened, which immediately allows us to see how and why it might happen again. 2nd is that we are especially likely to keep thinking about unexplained events. If an event defies explanation it becomes a mystery or conundrum – and if there’s one thing we all about such things, is that they refuse to stay in the back of our minds. P189

We pay more attention to favorable information, we surround ourselves with those who provide it, and we accept it uncritically. These tendencies make it easy for us to explain unpleasant experiences in ways that exonerate us and make us feel better. The price we pay for our irrepressible explanatory urge is that we often spoil our most pleasant experiences by making good sense of them. P191

Our brains use fact and theories to make guesses about past events, and so too do they use facts and guesses to make guesses about past feelings. Consider:
Volunteers were asked to remember how they felt a few months earlier, and the male and female volunteers remembered feeling equally intense emotions. Another group was asked the same question, but before doing so, they were asked to think about gender. Female volunteers now remembered feeling more intense emotion, and males remembered feeling less intense emotion.
Male and female volunteers became members of a team and played a game against an opposing team. Some volunteers immediately reported their feelings while playing, and others recalled their emotions a week later. Male and females didn’t differ in their immediate emotions. But a week later, females recalled feeling more stereotypically feminine emotions and males recalled masculine emotions.
Female volunteers kept a 6 week journal, and made daily ratings of their feelings. These ratings revealed that women’s emotions did not vary much with the phase of their menstrual cycles. However, when asked to reread the diary entry for a particular day and remember how they were feeling, they remembered feeling more negative on the days they were menstruating. P207-8

A lot of advice we receive from others is bad advice, and a lot of advice we receive is good advice that we foolishly reject. P214

False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate. P217

Wealth increases happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into middle class but it does little to increase happiness thereafter. P217

Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy… Yet if we measure the actual satisfaction of people who have children, a very different story emerges. Couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home… This pattern of satisfaction describes women better than men, even though women are generally considered the primary caretakers of the children. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, watching TV. Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework. P221

Chances are pretty good there is another human who is actually experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about. But it is also true that when people tell us about their current experiences they are providing us with the kind of report about their subjective state that is considered the gold std of happiness measures… Perhaps we should give up on remembering and imaging entirely, and use other people as surrogates for our future selves. P226

If I offered to pay for your dinner if you could accurately predict how much you were going to enjoy it, then would you want to see the menu or some randomly selected diner’s review to help make that prediction? Most people would prefer to see the menu, and most people would end up buying their own dinner. Why? When people are asked about their ability to perform an easy task [like predicting how you will enjoy your free dinner] they rate themselves as better than others [so why bother listening to some other cretin diner]; but when they are asked to perform a difficult task, they rate themselves as worse than others. We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique… What makes us think we’re so darned special? 3 things. 1st, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. 2nd, we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. We value our uniqueness, and it isn’t surprising that we overestimate it. 3rd, we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness. We tend to think of people as more different than they actually are… Because we spend so much time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate their magnitude and frequency and thus end up thinking of people as more varied than they actually are. P 230-1

People often value things more after they own them than before, they often value things more when they are imminent than distant, they are often hurt by small loses than by large ones, they often imagine that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of getting it, etc. p237