Field of Science

Scientists prove that if money could buy happiness, you wouldn't know what to buy

Humans are miserable at predicting how happy or how unhappy a given thing will make them, according to Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness.

In many realms of knowledge, people aren't very good at predicting the future. It turns out that fund managers rarely beat the market, experts are poor predictors of future events, and just about everybody is impaired at predicting how those events will make them feel. It's disappointing that neither mutual fund managers nor talking heads are really earning their salaries, but it is astonishing that most people can't predict how winning the lottery or losing their job will make them feel.

You might be tempted not to believe it, but there are dozens of carefully-contrived studies that show just that, many of them authored by Gilbert. In one study that is particularly relevant to me, researchers surveyed junior professors, asking them to predict how happy would they be in the next few years if they didn't make tenure. Not surprisingly, they expected to be pretty unhappy, and this was true of both people who did eventually make tenure and those who did not. However, when actually surveyed in the first five years after the tenure decision, the self-described level of happiness of those who did not get tenure was the same as those who did get tenure. This is not to say that being denied tenure didn't make those junior professors temporarily unhappy, but they got over it quickly enough.

(As a side-note, Gilbert mentions that both professors who got tenure and those who did not were happier than junior professors. "Being denied tenure makes you happier," he joked.)

The Big Question, then, is why are we so terrible at predicting future levels of happiness? One possibility is that we're just not that smart. Either there is no selective pressure for this ability -- and thus it never evolved -- or evolution just hasn't quite gotten there yet. Rhesus monkeys can't figure out whether they want 2 bananas or 4 bananas, and humans don't know how happy 2 or 4 bananas would make them feel.

Another possibility is that there's actually an advantage buried in this strange behavior. One possibility is that it's important to be motivated to have children (happy!) or protect your children from harm (unhappy!) but once you've had children, there's not actual advantage to increased happiness and if your children die, there's no advantage in being unable to recover from it. (In fact, parents are typically less happy because of having children, and they live shorter lives as well. I don't know about happiness levels of parents who have lost children.)

Gilbert is unsure about this argument. For every evolutionary argument you can give me in favor of poor predictions of happiness, he argued, I can give you one against. For instance, you also predict that being rejected by a potential mate will decrease your happiness more unhappy than it actually does. Thus you might not approach potential mates and thus not have children. It's ultimately a hard question to test scientifically.

(If you are wondering where I got these Gilbert quotes, it's from his lecture to the first-year graduate students in the psychology program last Thursday.)

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