Happiness Is ...

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Marilynn Oliphant

Dr. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

Why would an illustrious professor of psychology at Harvard decide to study a Hallmark subject like happiness? Thatís a no-brainer for Dr. Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf), a fascinating new book that explores our sometimes misguided attempts to find happiness. "Why would anybody study anything else?" asks Gilbert. "Something close to 100% of all human behavior is directed in one way or the other towards attaining happiness. In some sense, this is the goal of most of our actions. So it seems like the obvious thing for a psychologist to study." Gilbert spoke with TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs:

Is the desire for happiness wired into our psyche?

I would go further than that. Iíd say the phrase "desire for happiness" is redundant, because itís what desire means. What could it mean to desire something except to believe that it will increase your happiness? Thatís why it seems odd if somebody says, " desire a punch in the mouth." We canít figure out why they would desire it. A punch in the mouth doesnít lead to happiness, so how could you really want it?

Does our level of happiness fluctuate?

It certainly does. The world conspires to decrease our level of happiness; we fight back by trying to increase it. Human life can be seen as the struggle between these two forces.

Why are we often so poor at predicting what will make us happy?

Just as we are prone to illusions of memory and perception, so are we prone to illusions of imagination. We don't realize how much imagination puts in and leaves out, how much the imagined future is influenced by the actual present, and how differently we will think about the future once it happens.

Thereís a whole self-help literature about how to be happy. Do any of those books hit it on the mark?

You might be surprised to hear me say, I think the books are largely right. Most of the advice that you get in books on how to be happy is extremely trite, cliched and well-worn — trite, cliched and well-worn because itís true. The problem is, itís not a magic bullet. What we want, as Americans especially, but as human beings in general, is to open a book and find that thereís something weíve been missing, that happiness is really to be found — Oh my gosh! we slap our heads! — by putting on a green hat, standing on one leg, and singing the National Anthem. If only we knew this were it, we would have done it long ago. But if you open these books, what are they largely going to tell you? Two things that psychologists and economists have confirmed scientifically, that have been shouted from the mountain tops for thousands of years by wise people. Those two things are: the pursuit of material possessions has a very modest and complicated relationship to happiness. On the other hand, social relationships have an extremely powerful and simple relation to happiness.

When does money make people happy?

When it moves them out of poverty, and into the middle class Thereís an enormous difference in your happiness if you earn $10,000 or $50,000. That money is buying you out of poor health, poverty, adversity, worrying about where your next meal will come from, worrying about your children's future and safety. However, once people are earning enough to be in the middle class, more money doesnít make them much happier. So the difference between earning $10,000 and $50,000 is much bigger in terms of happiness than the difference between earning $100,000 and a million.

The average person wouldnít believe that, would they?

No. But data are stunningly clear. You can graph this again and again, and there are economists who do. The way I try to explain this to people is to say, Forget about money. Letís talk about pancakes. Do you think you get happy when you eat a pancake? Everyone says, "Sure, pancakes are delicious." Do two make you happier than one? "You bet! I like to have two." But once we get up to six or seven, people start rubbing their stomachs and realizing theyíre getting full. Theyíre satiating. The tenth pancake doesnít make you happier than the ninth one did, which only made you a little happier than the eighth one did. People understand with something like food, we reach a point of satiety. It turns out itís exactly the same way with money.

Why donít the same things make everyone happy?

I actually think the same things do make most people happy. The differences are extremely small, and around the margins. You like peach ice cream; I like strawberry ice cream. Both of us like ice cream much better than a smack on the head with two-by-four. If you look at the whole world of possible things that we could experience, youíll notice that almost all human beings want the same stuff, and almost all human beings want to avoid the same stuff. I think itís an illusion that we are remarkably different.

Does happiness ever get boring, like a perpetually sunny day?

I think in some ways, by definition, it couldnít. Because if you were bored, then you wouldnít be happy. But if youíre asking a question about whether we can and should want to have perpetual happiness, the answer to the second question is moot, because the answer to the first question is no. Itís not possible to be in precisely the same positive emotional state at all times. Emotions are the brainís way of telling us that weíre doing something thatís good or bad for us in the evolutionary sense. Think of emotions as a compass; theyíre there to guide us in the right direction. What good is a compass thatís always stuck on north? Your emotions are meant to fluctuate, just like your blood pressure is meant to fluctuate. Itís a system thatís supposed to move back and forth, between happy and unhappy. Thatís how the system guides you through the world.

Would you describe yourself as happy?

Extremely. I have everything that I could possibly want in life, from a gorgeous granddaughter and a wonderful wife, brilliant students, the best job anyone could hope for, and about half of my hair. Not the half I would have kept, but no one consulted me.