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1/19/09

We Think We Know What Will Make Us Happy, But Are Bad Predictors of What Actually Will

Mind Shadows Home We Think We Know What Will Make Us Happy, But Are Bad Predictors of What Actually Will

My cat Sebastian likes food in his bowl, a warm lap, and a hand stroking his head. After I pet him for a while, he settles into a purr of perfect contentment while I read a book. For him, the future doesn't exist. It is one continual series of now. So much for living in the present. His brain has a limited frontal cortex while ours, yours and mind, is large. Like him, we have a limbic system deep in our brains, and there lies our problem as so-called rational human beings. To use some short-hand here, the cortex reasons, the limbic system emotes. The cortex prepares for the future while, in a cat, the limbic system lies on your lap and purrs, so to speak.

We all want to be happy. Aristotle long ago said it is the ultimate good, and not to be questioned as it is an end unto itself. Buddha taught that people can become happy by developing skillful means (upaya) to see through the tricks mind plays on them. The mind plays tricks aplenty. We think we know what will make us happy but we don't, not really. We think we know what has made us happy but that too is often wrong. So the question becomes, If happiness is so important to us, why are we not any better at finding it?

Recently considerable research has been spent on this question, and in several fields of inquiry. One of the fields is Behavioral Economics. A different field, Neuroeconomics, explores competition between the cortex and the limbic system. My cat Sebastian, though, does not buy things. Living in the Long Now, he does not have the least curiosity in how food gets to his bowl. You and I must deal with getting and spending and, like Wordsworth, we sometimes fret that the world is too much with us. We are not always happy, maybe never, and we wonder why.

It seems that people make bad life choices because they have faulty estimations of their future emotional state. Overall, they are poor judges of future events, good or bad, which prove less intense and more transient than they predicted. (Read Misconceptions About Happiness (Maybe You'd Really Rather Have A Candy Bar) )

Behavioral Economics helps us understand how to better manage and predict our own and others' happiness. It begins with an observation that the traditional, classic view of economic science is flawed. What does that mean?

Our free market system is based on the view that we are rational, all human beings, and free agents acting in our own rational self interest. That is the premise of orthodox economics. In his 1776 The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their self-interest."

Rational? Well, over two hundred years later, that is still the prevailing doctrine taught in economics classes. It's not wholly accurate, though.

Behavioral economics, looks at the irrational side of things. People buy, but they often buy what they should not. Consider the following comment:

"People very robustly want instant gratification right now, and want to be patient in the future. If you ask people, ‘Which do you want right now, fruit or chocolate?’ they say, ‘Chocolate!’ But if you ask, ‘Which one a week from now?’ they will say, ‘Fruit.’ Now we want chocolate, cigarettes, and a trashy movie. In the future, we want to eat fruit, to quit smoking, and to watch Bergman films." More

The video below has Daniel Gilbert in a very interesting presentation of findings on happiness. Watch it to discover a few mind hacks and learn something about your brain.

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