Happiness, quantified

© Natalia Martinez

A couple of fantastic TED talks (do I love TED talks orrrr do I love TED talks!? ah!) and some brief explanations to follow:

The first video is a talk by Nic Marks, a British statistician talks about how we as humanity need to stop viewing the future as apocalyptic. Aside from the recent slew of movies about a destroyed, Armageddon-like future of our planet, Marks talks about how even the environmental movement (of which he is a part of) is guilty of using fear to appeal to people. Fear guides the fight or flight response, not the “Oh, I am ready to change the world for the better” response that would be more desirable. Marks’ main point is about the share of the blame that our established measures of productivity and success have in this deconstruction of optimism and positive change: it should not be about measuring GDP and interest rates, but about considering sustainability, wellbeing, etc. To measure this, Marks and the New Economics Foundation have created the Happy Planet Index, which is significantly more substantive than its name hints. I liked this talk because too often things like “happiness” are equated with fluffy emotionality, not surveyed facts, researched findings, and an active element of the progress of nations. It also makes me want to go to Costa Rica, which is measured as the HAPPIEST nations in the world (see the video for why!!). Disclaimer: as some of the comments on the video will reveal, there are many things to critique about GDP as a measure of human welfare (Robert Kennedy quote: “[GDP] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”)and the Happy Planet Index is also insufficient, but in my opinion, a combination of different measures is a good way to move forward in a more comprehensive fashion.

My second recommended talk is by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, who, I have to confess, I absolutely love so I am very biased about. Gilbert discusses how our brain processes happiness. He touches on one of my favorite psychological tricks principles: Impact bias/affective forecasting the tendency to overestimate the hedonistic value of changes in our lives. In the words of Adam Smith, “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.” For example, studies have shown that lottery winners and paraplegic individuals report equal levels of happiness a year after the event that changed their lives.

Gilbert’s main dichotomy is between Synthetic vs. Natural happiness. Natural happiness is what we feel when we get what we wanted; the Synthetic kind results when we ‘make what we can’ from not getting what we want. We tend to see these as different as individuals and society is focused on the pursuit of the former even if it sometimes settles for the latter; the bottom line is, we see Natural Happiness as superior. Gilbert’s examples of this are numerous and on the money: how many times have we scoffed at someone who ‘claims’ they are really happy as a result of something that radically altered their original plans (taking time off from school, loosing a job, getting divorced, etc). Gilbert, however, maintains that both are just as lasting and real and should be pursued with equal fervor. I love this concept because it is a healthy slap in the face reminder that not only does life move on, but we move on and recover with remarkable resilience after events/adjustments in our life course. Especially for those of us in our 20s, it is reassuring to know that not every decision will reverberate in eternity and affect our ultimate happiness when we are 50.

Gilbert also touches on how freedom of options and choices is good for the creation of natural happiness, but bad for synthetic happiness. He gives a couple of great examples of this based on a study his lab did on Harvard students taking a photography class and essentially says: we think we know, but really, we don’t know what’s best for us at all because we consistently choose the option that will make us less happy. When given the option, we always want to have more choice, more options, and the end result is that we decrease our own happiness by constantly second guessing ourselves. Reminds me of one of my posts from earlier this fall on the irony of choice. To this, I apply what I like to call my Menu Philosophy: when in restaurants, I read over the menu one time, narrow down my options to two or three right off the bat, and try to make a final decision really quickly. Then I close the menu and never look at it again, thus arbitrarily limiting my own perception of the available multitude of options. Oh, mind games!

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One response to “Happiness, quantified

  1. Pingback: A contemplative pause from work | Musings of a Soul Afloat

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