Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Daniel Gilbert - Stumbling on happiness

This is a fascinating book about how our brains work, as we try to foresee our future. Unfortunately, the conclusion is that we can't, because our minds deceive us. The book doesn't give us any advice in how to find happiness, but it explains why we stumble while doing it.

In short, the brain doesn't have the capacity to remember everything, the amount of input is simply too huge. So it uses some tricks to cut down the amount of information. Unfortunately this has some side-effects...

One way in which we are deceived is that we don't remember feelings, but rather our own description of that feeling (p32). That we might recall ourself saying that the food was a bit bland, rather than actually feeling the taste. Another is that we have different"scales of happiness" (p51). Somebody might think it's cool to slide down a snowy slope, but that is only because she never flew down a slope on telemark skis with the adrenaline pumping at 100 km/h! These scales are individual and also change with time, so there is no way to predict how we will feel about the same thing at a later time, really.

We are born as realists - we see what we see and believe that everybody else see the same (p84). We believe the brain remembers the world like a movie camera captures it. However we soon realize that this is not the case, we are idealists. Even though we know the cookies are in that drawer it doesn't mean mommy knows (unfortunately it's usually the other way around, though). And all we see is filtered by the brain. If we want to see a Jesus walking on the water hard enough, we will, and if we totally refuse to admit the weather is shit we will think the winters in Frankfurt are lovely. This explains UFO:s, God's miracles and god knows all. "We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected." (p89"

Another side-effect is that we don't think of things that are not present (p98). It totally makes sense, why think about hot-dogs when we're eating entrecote? The sad thing is it makes us not see the whole picture. In a study people were asked which two countries are the most similar - Ceylon-Nepal or West Germany-East Germany - and then which are the most dissimilar. And they answered East-West Germany on both! Because they focused on the similarities, not the lack of similarities, and the dissimilarities, not the lack of dissimilarities. In another test people were shown three-letter combinations (ABC). After seeing a few they could conclude eg they all have the latter "X". But if the pattern to find was a lack of any character, they were never able to find it out! (p97)

Just as with our eye sight, the mind sight is more clear about something close than something far away (p104). The closer we get, the more detail we see.

"Omväxling förnöjer" we say in Sweden, change is stimulating (or something like that). But this is not true! (p132) In a test people had two things to eat, a favourite dish and something ok. If they were eating at a normal pace, they enjoyed having a change every now and then, true enough. But if they ate slower, they preferred the favourite every time! (Hmm, could this somehow be translated into the realm of infidelity??? If you have sex with your partner so often you loose interest, do youl then want to sidestep?)

In the interaction with other people our brain is playing tricks on us too (p166). We surround us with people who say what we want to hear. We ask questions in a way that delivers the result we want to hear. We ignore the people not supporting us and focus on them that do. We also compare ourself with those people that make us look good. A C is not that bad after all, compared to all the D:s!

As if all this wasn't enough, there is the "psychological immune system", that steps in when we feel really bad. This makes us feel better when something that is bad enough happens. Which is great, but the odd side-effect is that we might feel better if we get our ass kicked than just being insulted! Because the psychological immune system doesn't care about the insult, but helps us overcome the beating. Also, you might feel better being the victim of that beating than being a bystander!

Another funny trigger we have is the inescapability trigger. This makes us accept things that are inescapable, and hense make us like them much more. So, having a wife knowing there is now way to get rid of her, you like her more! So, no wonder the divorce rates are rising in these days of freedom! It only explains why you like your shitty old car (it's quite charming after all, isn't it!) if it wouldn't be saleable, but the neighbour's brand new car just wouldn't do (Toyotas are bloody boring, aren't they?) (p185).

Rare and unusual events triggers our memory more than normal stuff. That's why we remember all the birds shitting on us, but not all the days this didn't happen (p188). This is one reason why unexplained events catch our attention. The other is that the brain spontaneously tries to explain things. When an explanation can't be found, the thoughts still linger on that fact. (This could be a reason for religion, couldn't it? Some things just can't find a reasonable explanation so you invent some silly idea of a man with a beard that knows it all, just to get some peace!)

"The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences." (p200) You don't remember all the times the queue moves in a normal pace, but everytime it's painfully slow! So you think you never choose the right queue...

Our memories are also shaped but what we think we ought to remember (p207). As an example, women are supposed to be more emotional than men. So even though this is not the case, we remember it as if this was the case. No wonder people can be brainwashed! If you are told that "Pray to the Lord and you'll feel good" often enough, we eventually will start to remember that it actually works. "Our inability to recall how we really felt is one of the reasons why our wealth of experience so often turns out to be a poverty of riches." (p210)

When trying to look into the future, due to how our brains work, the best way is to listen to others. (p228) But do we do that? No. (p229) Because we think we're so different from the average person, or actually anyone that is saying anything about how he/she is feeling in a certain circumstance...

Close to the end Gilbert walks out into a hot political minefield when he explains some very interesting mechanisms that make our society work as it does. As an example we believe kids make us happy even though they don't (p221). In fact the happiness of people deteriorate as the woman gets pregnant and then doesn't recoup until the kids have left the house! Money don't make us happy either. "The declining marginal utility" shows us how we get very much more happy lifting ourselves from poverty, but then for every step further the positive effects decline. A billionaire is not happier than a multi-millionaire. And a worker is just marginally less happy than an engineer (p217). Already Adam Smith was aware of this: "In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar ... possesses that security which kings are fighting for."

How come we act act such fools? Because these believes are "super-replicators" (p214). Just like some genes are passed on to the next generation better than others, some believes are passed on better than others. A belief that "you cannot have sex" will of course die, because few children will be born (there actually is such a religion, and babies were still born, but the last members are about to die by now). This explains why we think we must have kids. This explains why we think we must work our asses off. And it explains religion: "False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate." (p217) "The belief-transmission system is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness ... while we believe we are raising children and earning paycheques to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken. We are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by logicof it's own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated." (p222)

No comments: