Stumbling on Happiness

5 10 2006

Yesterday, I watched a TedTalk (becoming one of my favorite repositories of varied speeches, not just technology related) by Dan Gilbert about Stumblilng on Happiness. I’ll probably run out and get his book sometime soon. Mr. Gilbert clearly has a very academic style, but actually one that I very much appreciate.

The speech basically details studies of seemingly horrific experiences (being wrongly imprisoned) and seemingly terrific experiences (winning the lotto), finding oft times that the person being wrongly imprisoned is actually happier than the person winning the lotto. A natural human response is to balk at this, but Gilbert gives a number of scientific reasons why this actually happens.

Society tends to believe that manufactured happiness is inferior to natural happiness (getting what you want). Clearly, this edict of society is necessary because if everyone thought that not getting you want is just as good as getting what you want, the engines of innovation and labor in free markets would come to a grinding halt.

He closes that our longings and our worries are overblown because our brains are able to manufacture happniess. Thus, we tend to overestimate the difference between getting what you want and not getting what you want.

The central lesson here is to use the desire to get what you want in a bounded manner and you’ll act prudently and justly. But don’t let this desire (or fear) either drive you too far to lie, cheat or steal – or cripple you to paralysis for fear that not getting what you want will make you miserable.

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