When people think of "science," they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can't be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.

A Talk with Daniel Gilbert

Q: Why is this man happy? (A: He married up.)

Marilynn Oliphant & Daniel Gilbert

Introduction by John Brockman

Dan Gilbert doesn't have an instruction manual that tells you how to be happy in four easy steps and one hard one. Nor is he the kind of thinker who needs Freud, Marx, and Modernism to explain the human condition.

Gilbert, the Director of Harvard's Hedonic Psychology Laboratory, is a scientist who explores what philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics have to teach us about how, and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how, and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.

Below he talks about a wide range of matters that include how we measure a person's subjective emotional experience; the role of "positive hedonic experience"; science as an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions; the role negative emotions play in our lives; the costs of variety; and the need to abandon the romantic notion that human unhappiness results from the loss of our primal innocence.


DANIEL GILBERT is he Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Hedonic Psychology Laboratory.

He is the author of the recently published Stumbling on Happiness.



(DANIEL GILBERT:) When people think of "science," they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can't be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.

What does it take to study something scientifically? One word: Measurement. If you can measure something, you can study it scientifically. Can we measure a person's subjective emotional experience? You bet. People can tell you with both words and actions what they are experiencing — what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling—and these reports are the essential data on which the science of experience is built. If you don't think such reports are reliable or valid, then you should feel free to discard my research papers.

But just to be consistent, you should also discard your glasses or contact lenses, because optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, "Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?"

On the basis of your answers, the optometrist is able to create a lens that corrects your vision quite precisely. Indeed, without your 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. In short, 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. In fact, there is no other way to build such a science.


People often bristle at the suggestion that human behavior is merely an attempt to attain happiness. They offer two objections. First (they say), people care about many things other than happiness — for example, truth, justice, and the American way — and thus there is more to life than happiness. Second (they add), there are different kinds of happiness — for example, the deep, moral happiness I feel when I save starving orphans isn't the cheap, bovine happiness I feel when I save money. Both objections are wrong.

First, people clearly value many things — from the base to the sublime, from Belgian chocolate to marital fidelity — but I believe they value these things entirely because of their hedonic consequences. Plato was very clear about this 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?" I'm with the guy in the toga on this score. To my mind, "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 second argument is also wrong. Yes, the experience of saving money is not the same as the experience of saving orphans. But 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.

This sounds like a semantic abstraction, and it isn't. It is a deeply important point. Science is an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions. Once upon a time there were two kinds — hot and cold — and it was a huge breakthrough when scientists realized that these two kinds were simply manifestations of different amounts of molecular motion. The same was true when scientists realized that oxygen and iron were not different kinds of stuff, but rather, were different amounts of stuff, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. Similarly, different subjective experiences contain different amounts of happiness, which is a basic dimension or basic ingredient of experience. Experiences that have 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.


For the last decade I've been obsessed with one problem: How well can the human brain predict the sources of its own future satisfaction? If the answer were "Very well, thank you," then I'd be out of a job. Research suggests that I will be employed for a long time to come.

We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future for two reasons. First, we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things for them so that they can survive. Because we are interested in our own happiness and not theirs, 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 happy. But the data 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?

My research with Tim Wilson shows that when people try to simulate future events — and to simulate their emotional reactions to those events — they make systematic errors. Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that 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.

Oddly, 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 have important roles to play in our lives because 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. Just as 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, but that's the extreme case. 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 they try to forecast their future feelings. I am often asked whether there is some evolutionary advantage to making such errors. Sure, 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.

In the meantime and until someone convinces me otherwise, I am inclined to take the obvious positions: 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; and so on. These don't seem like particularly controversial claims to me. We have great big brains that can foresee the future in a way that no other animal ever has, and in a way that our own species could not just a few million years ago. Foresight isn't twenty-twenty, and sometimes it seems to be legally blind, but 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.


We're all told that variety is the spice of life.  But 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.

Those last four words are the important ones. 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.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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