Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Study Guide Happy stumbling! The full answer to this question extends over six chapters that describe the. Stumbling on Happiness is a mix of interesting experiments on psychology and social psychology. Here are a few of them. Buy Stumbling on Happiness on soundofheaven.info ✓ FREE SHIPPING on and this book suffers from a lack of narrative arc: it's stuffed too full of experiments and.
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of the “void” in his book The Power of Now. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt Introduction Resisting Happiness: A True Story about Why We. Stumbling on Happiness DANIEL GILBERT Alfred A. Knopf New York CONTENTS . So why do they end up with attics and lives that are full of stuff that we. [PDF] Download Stumbling on Happiness Ebook. In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our.
Impact is rewarding. You can change your ad preferences anytime. When we leap to catch a Frisbee, our brains predict where the disc will be when we cross its flight path, and then bring our hands to precisely that point. These feelings are different, of course, but they also have something in common. Others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that, much to the chagrin of our romantic partners, consists primarily of good, not so good, and I already told you.
However, whenever you look at a surrounding or a picture, you do not notice your blind spot — what you see is a whole image. Well, your brain has the ability to fill up the details by scanning the area around your blind spot.
Because it is essential for you to understand the power of our brains. Similarly, as with pictures and vision, our mind can also fill up the missing details of reality. In other words, what we see is not a reflection of the world, but partly an image created by our mind. Our brain also plays a big part in the details we add to our memories. Whenever you think of a past event, it is impossible that you remember everything that has happened to detail, since your life is filled with too many information to store.
Also, our brain is wired in a way that it stores more information about the unusual than about the common and mundane. Now, the problem arises when the brain uses the same kind of power for creating images of our future. How many times has it happened to you that you only know that you will do one thing for a fact, but you already have a scenario in had of how that thing is going to play out? The brain may know just one information — for example, that you have a date tonight, and create a whole story around that one piece of information.
Well, once you create an image of a future event, you cannot imagine it playing out another way. And we all know how disappointing it is when your expectations do not get met. But disappointment is not the danger here. Belief in predictions about the future is.
Sometimes we mistake our own mental images with facts about the future, which can affect our behavior and decisions. You need to remember that your current emotions have a large impact on the image you create about the future.
However, we are not saying that you should not take chances. Most of the time you will regret all the things that you did not try to do than those you did and made a mistake. The truth is, mistakes can be great teachers, while idleness will bring you nothing. However, accept that there are and there always will be unpleasant events and situations and life and prepare to face them. Interestingly enough, our brains are made in such a way that we distress more about small and trivial misfortunes than about significant matters.
Well, our brains protect us from big and really stressful events. When it comes to minor shocks, on the other hand, they leave the ball in our court. But our brains also allow us to induce a positive worldview.
The only thing you need to do to become more positive is to surround yourself with people and information that backs up your perspective. In other words, you need to control the information that you are letting get to you and limit it just to information that is positive. I will conclude by telling you about a simple remedy for these illusions that you will almost certainly not accept.
Reba is a somewhat shy teetotaler who has recorded an award-winning album of country music. In fact, there are just two unusual things about Lori and Reba. The first is that they share a blood supply, part of a skull, and some brain tissue, having been joined at the forehead since birth.
The second unusual thing about Lori and Reba is that they are happy—not merely resigned or contented, but joyful, playful, and optimistic. When asked about the possibility of undergoing surgical separation, Reba speaks for both of them: Why would you want to do that? For all the money in China, why? If this were your life rather than theirs, how would you feel? Try to be honest instead of correct. As a prominent medical historian wrote: And yet, standing against the backdrop of our certainty about these matters are the twins themselves.
But what? There seem to be just two possibilities.
Someone—either Lori and Reba, or everyone else in the world—is making a dreadful mistake when they talk about happiness. Fair enough. But like the claims they dismiss, these rejoinders are also claims—scientific claims and philosophical claims—that presume answers to questions that have vexed scientists and philosophers for millennia.
What are we all talking about when we make such claims about happiness? Dancing About Architecture There are thousands of books on happiness, and most of them start by asking what happiness really is.
As readers quickly learn, this is approximately equivalent to beginning a pilgrimage by marching directly into the first available tar pit, because happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please. The problem is that people seem pleased to use this one word to indicate a host of different things, which has created a tremendous terminological mess on which several fine scholarly careers have been based.
If one slops around in this mess long enough, one comes to see that most disagreements about what happiness really is are semantic disagreements about whether the word ought to be used to indicate this or that, rather than scientific or philosophical disagreements about the nature of this and that. What are the this and the that that happiness most often refers to?
The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things, which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness, and judgmental happiness. Feeling Happy Emotional happiness is the most basic of the trio—so basic, in fact, that we become tongue-tied when we try to define it, as though some bratty child had just challenged us to say what the word the means and in the process made a truly compelling case for corporal punishment.
Emotional happiness is a phrase for a feeling, an experience, a subjective state, and thus it has no objective referent in the physical world. If we ambled down to the corner pub and met an alien from another planet who asked us to define that feeling, we would either point to the objects in the world that tend to bring it about, or we would mention other feelings that it is like. In fact, this is the only thing we can do when we are asked to define a subjective experience.
Consider, for instance, how we might define a very simple subjective experience, such as yellow. It is what human beings with working visual apparatus experience when their eyes are struck by light with a wavelength of nanometers. The thing that is common to the visual experiences you have when you look at them is called yellow. Well, it is sort of like the experience of orange, with a little less of the experience of red. If our new drinking buddy lacks the machinery for color vision, then our experience of yellow is one that it will never share—or never know it shares—no matter how well we point and talk.
These feelings are different, of course, but they also have something in common. A piece of real estate is not the same as a share of stock, which is not the same as an ounce of gold, but all are forms of wealth that occupy different points on a scale of value.
Similarly, the cocaine experience is not the kitten-fur experience, which is not the promotion experience, but all are forms of feeling that occupy different points on a scale of happiness. In each of these instances, an encounter with something in the world generates a roughly similar pattern of neural activity,7 and thus it makes sense that there is something common to our experiences of each—some conceptual coherence that has led human beings to group this hodgepodge of occurrences together in the same linguistic category for as long as anyone can remember.
Indeed, when researchers analyze how all the words in a language are related to the others, they inevitably find that the positivity of the words—that is, the extent to which they refer to the experience of happiness or unhappiness—is the single most important determinant of their relationships. Happiness, then, is the you-know-what-I-mean feeling.
If you are a human being who lives in this century and shares some of my cultural conditioning, then my pointing and comparing will have been effective and you will know exactly which feeling I mean. If you are an alien who is still struggling with yellow, then happiness is going to be a real challenge.
But take heart: I would have no idea what that feeling is, and I could only learn the name and hope to use it politely in conversation. Because emotional happiness is an experience, it can only be approximately defined by its antecedents and by its relation to other experiences. Everyone who has observed human behavior for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy.
If there has ever been a group of human beings who prefer despair to delight, frustration to satisfaction, and pain to pleasure, they must be very good at hiding because no one has ever seen them. People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end. Even when people forgo happiness in the moment—by dieting when they could be eating, or working late when they could be sleeping—they are usually doing so in order to increase its future yield.
In this sense, a preference for pain and suffering is not so much a diagnosable psychiatric condition as it is an oxymoron. As Sigmund Freud wrote: The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives.
What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and displeasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.
The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was especially clear on this point: All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views.
The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. One of the problems is that many people consider the desire for happiness to be a bit like the desire for a bowel movement: And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
If you considered it perfectly tragic for life to be aimed at nothing more substantive and significant than a feeling, and yet you could not help but notice that people spend their days seeking happiness, then what might you be tempted to conclude? A few centuries later, Christian theologians added a nifty twist to this classical conception: Happiness was not merely the product of a life of virtue but the reward for a life of virtue, and that reward was not necessarily to be expected in this lifetime.
I can produce pain by pricking your finger with a pin or by electrically stimulating a particular spot in your brain, and the two pains will be identical feelings produced by different means. It would do us no good to call the first of these real pain and the other fake pain.
Pain is pain, no matter what causes it. By muddling causes and consequences, philosophers have been forced to construct tortured defenses of some truly astonishing claims—for example, that a Nazi war criminal who is basking on an Argentinean beach is not really happy, whereas the pious missionary who is being eaten alive by cannibals is.
Happiness is a word that we generally use to indicate an experience and not the actions that give rise to it. Indeed it does. We hope there never was such a person, but the sentence is grammatical, well formed, and easily understood. Frank is a sick puppy, but if he says he is happy and he looks happy, is there a principled reason to doubt him?
No, of course not. If Sue is unconscious, she cannot be happy no matter how many good deeds she did before calamity struck. Or how about this one: Again, sorry, but no. There is some remote possibility that clams can be happy because there is some remote possibility that clams have the capacity to feel. But not necessarily and not exclusively. Feeling Happy About The you-know-what-I-mean feeling is what people ordinarily mean by happiness, but it is not the only thing they mean.
If philosophers have muddled the moral and emotional meanings of the word happiness, then psychologists have muddled the emotional and judgmental meanings equally well and often.
How do we know when a person is expressing a point of view rather than making a claim about her subjective experience? When the word happy is followed by the words that or about, speakers are usually trying to tell us that we ought to take the word happy as an indication not of their feelings but rather of their stances. Indeed, the first time we utter the word, we are letting our spouse know that we are most certainly not having the you-know- what-I-mean feeling emotional happiness , and the second time we utter the word we are indicating that we approve of the fact that our spouse is judgmental happiness.
We are not actually claiming to be experiencing the feeling or anything like it. Perhaps the happiness one experiences as a result of good deeds feels different from that other sort.
Or from eating a slice of this banana-cream pie rather than a slice of that one. How can we tell whether subjective emotional experiences are different or the same? Philosophers have flung themselves headlong at this problem for quite some time with little more than bruises to show for it,20 because when all is said and done, the only way to measure precisely the similarity of two things is for the person who is doing the measuring to compare them side by side—that is, to experience them side by side.
When we were children, our mothers taught us to call that looking-at-the-school-bus experience yellow, and being compliant little learners, we did as we were told.
We were pleased when it later turned out that everyone else in the kindergarten claimed to experience yellow when they looked at a bus too.
But these shared labels may mask the fact that our actual experiences of yellow are quite different, which is why many people do not discover that they are color-blind until late in life when an ophthalmologist notices that they do not make the distinctions that others seem to make. So while it seems rather unlikely that human beings have radically different experiences when they look at a school bus, when they hear a baby cry, or when they smell a former skunk, it is possible, and if you want to believe it, then you have every right and no one who values her time should try to reason with you.
Perhaps the way to determine whether a pair of happinesses actually feel different is to forget about comparing the experiences of different minds and just ask someone who has experienced them both. I may never know if my experience of yellow is different from your experience of yellow, but surely I can tell that my experience of yellow is different from my experience of blue when I mentally compare the two. Unfortunately, this strategy is more complicated than it looks.
The nub of the problem is that when we say that we are mentally comparing two of our own subjective experiences, we are not actually having the two experiences at the same time. Rather, we are at best having one of them, having already had the other, and when an interrogator asks us which experience made us happier or whether the two happinesses were the same, we are at best comparing something we are currently experiencing with our memory of something we experienced in the past.
This would be unobjectionable were it not for the fact that memories—especially memories of experiences—are notoriously unreliable, a fact that has been demonstrated by both magicians and scientists. First the magic.
Look at the six royal cards in figure 4, and pick your favorite. Keep it to yourself. Now consider how scientists have approached the problem of remembered experience. In one study, researchers showed volunteers a color swatch of the sort one might pick up in the paint aisle of the local hardware store and allowed them to study it for five seconds.
All volunteers were then shown a lineup of six color swatches, one of which was the color they had seen thirty seconds earlier, and were asked to pick out the original swatch. The first interesting finding was that only 73 percent of the nondescribers were able to identify it accurately. In other words, fewer than three quarters of these folks could tell if this experience of yellow was the same as the experience of yellow they had had just a half-minute before.
The second interesting finding was that describing the color impaired rather than improved performance on the identification task. Only 33 percent of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color. And what they had said was not clear and precise enough to help them recognize it when they saw it again thirty seconds later. Most of us have been in this position. Rather, we are likely to be recalling that as we left the concert, we mentioned to our companion that both the wine and the music had a promising start and a poor finish.
Experiences of chardonnays, string quartets, altruistic deeds, and banana-cream pie are rich, complex, multidimensional, and impalpable. One of the functions of language is to help us palp them—to help us extract and remember the important features of our experiences so that we can analyze and communicate them later.
The New York Times online film archive stores critical synopses of films rather than the films themselves, which would take up far too much space, be far too difficult to search, and be thoroughly useless to anyone who wanted to know what a film was like without actually seeing it.
Experiences are like movies with several added dimensions, and were our brains to store the full-length feature films of our lives rather than their tidy descriptions, our heads would need to be several times larger. And when we wanted to know or tell others whether the tour of the sculpture garden was worth the price of the ticket, we would have to replay the entire episode to find out. Every act of memory would require precisely the amount of time that the event being remembered had originally taken, which would permanently sideline us the first time someone asked if we liked growing up in Chicago.
So we reduce our experiences to words such as happy, which barely do them justice but which are the things we can carry reliably and conveniently with us into the future. Perceiving Differences Our remembrance of things past is imperfect, thus comparing our new happiness with our memory of our old happiness is a risky way to determine whether two subjective experiences are really different.
For instance, if we were to do a version of the color-swatch experiment in which we reduced the amount of time that passed between the presentation of the original swatch and the presentation of the lineup, surely people would have no problem identifying the original swatch, right?
So what if we reduced the time to, say, twenty-five seconds? Or fifteen? How about a fraction of one? And what if, as a bonus, we made the identification task a bit easier by showing volunteers a color swatch for a few seconds, taking it away for just a fraction of a second, and then showing them one test swatch instead of a lineup of six and asking them to tell us whether the single test swatch is the same as the original.
No intervening verbal description to confuse their memories, no rival test swatches to confuse their eyes, and only a sliver of a slice of a moment between the presentation of the original and test swatches. Yes, but only if we enjoy being wrong. In a study conceptually similar to the one we just designed, researchers asked volunteers to look at a computer screen and read some odd-looking text.
Now, as you may know, when people seem to be staring directly at something, their eyes are actually flickering slightly away from the thing they are staring at three or four times per second, which is why eyeballs look jiggly if you study them up close.
Amazingly, volunteers did not notice that the text was alternating between different styles several times each second as they read it. Even dramatic changes to the appearance of a scene are sometimes overlooked. In an experiment taken straight from the pages of Candid Camera, researchers arranged for a researcher to approach pedestrians on a college campus and ask for directions to a particular building.
As the construction workers passed, the original researcher crouched down behind the door and walked off with the construction workers, while a new researcher, who had been hiding behind the door all along, took his place and picked up the conversation. The original and substitute researchers were of different heights and builds and had noticeably different voices, haircuts, and clothing.
You would have no trouble telling them apart if they were standing side by side. So what did the Good Samaritans who had stopped to help a lost tourist make of this switcheroo?
Not much. In fact, most of the pedestrians failed to notice —failed to notice that the person to whom they were talking had suddenly been transformed into an entirely new individual.
Are we to believe, then, that people cannot tell when their experience of the world has changed right before their eyes? Of course not. If we take this research to its logical extreme we end up as extremists generally do: If we could never tell when our experience of the world had changed, how could we know that something was moving, how could we tell whether to stop or go at an intersection, and how could we count beyond one?
These experiments tell us that the experiences of our former selves are sometimes as opaque to us as the experiences of other people, but more important, they tell us when this is most and least likely to be the case. What was the critical ingredient that allowed each of the foregoing studies to produce the results it did? In each instance, volunteers were not attending to their own experience of a particular aspect of a stimulus at the moment of its transition.
We would not expect these studies to show the same results if burnt umber became fluorescent mauve, or if this became t h a t, or if an accountant from Poughkeepsie became Queen Elizabeth II while the volunteer was looking right at her, or him, or whatever. And indeed, research has shown that when volunteers are paying close attention to a stimulus at the precise moment that it changes, they do notice that change quickly and reliably.
Magicians have known all this for centuries, of course, and have traditionally used their knowledge to spare the rest of us the undue burden of money. A few pages back you chose a card from a group of six. To prove it, I have removed your card from the group. How did I do it? Indeed, when the trick first appeared on a website, some of the smartest scientists I know hypothesized that a newfangled technology was allowing the server to guess their card by tracking the speed and acceleration of their keystrokes.
I personally removed my hand from the mouse just to make sure that its subtle movements were not being measured. It did not occur to me until the third time through that while I had seen the first group of six cards, I had only remembered my verbal label for the card I had chosen, and hence had failed to notice that all the other cards had changed as well. Happy Talk Reba and Lori Schappell claim to be happy, and that disturbs us.
If they say they are happy, then on what basis can we conclude that they are wrong? Well, we might try the more lawyerly tactic of questioning their ability to know, evaluate, or describe their own experience. If, for instance, we were to give the twins a birthday cake, hand them an eight-point rating scale which can be thought of as an artificial language with eight words for different intensities of happiness , and ask them to report on their subjective experience, they might tell us they felt a joyful eight.
Lori and Reba may be using the eight-word language differently than we do because for them, birthday cake is as good as it gets. They label their happiest experience with the happiest word in the eight-word language, naturally, but this should not cause us to overlook the fact that the experience they call eight is an experience that we might call four and a half. Figure 6 shows how an impoverished experiential background can cause language to be squished so that the full range of verbal labels is used to describe a restricted range of experiences.
By this account, when the twins say they are ecstatic, they are actually feeling what we feel when we say we are pleased. The language-squishing hypothesis suggests that when given a birthday cake, Lori and Reba feel exactly as you feel but talk about it differently. The less nice things about this hypothesis are numerous, and if we worry that Lori and Reba use the eight- word language differently than we do because they have never enjoyed the thrill of a cartwheel, then we had better worry about a few other matters too.
For instance, we had better worry that we have never felt the overwhelming sense of peace and security that comes from knowing that a beloved sibling is always by our side, that we will never lose her friendship no matter what kind of crummy stuff we may say or do on a bad day, that there will always be someone who knows us as well as we know ourselves, shares our hopes, worries our worries, and so on. But these are just the preliminary worries.
There are more. Are the people who have undergone such marvelous metamorphoses to be taken at their word? Not necessarily. Consider a study in which volunteers were shown some quiz-show questions and asked to estimate the likelihood that they could answer them correctly.
Some volunteers were shown only the questions the question-only group , while others were shown both the questions and the answers the question-and-answer group.
Farnsworth invent? Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see.
This lens is not like a pair of spectacles that we can set on the nightstand when we find it convenient to do so but like a pair of contacts that are forever affixed to our eyeballs with superglue.
Once we learn to read, we can never again see letters as mere inky squiggles. Once we learn that van Gogh was a mental patient, or that Ezra Pound was an anti- Semite, we can never again view their art in the same way. If Lori and Reba were separated for a few weeks, and if they told us that they were happier now than they used to be, they might be right. But they might not. They might just be telling us that the singletons they had become now viewed being conjoined with as much distress as those of us who have always been singletons do.
Even if they could remember what they thought, said, and did as conjoined twins, we would expect their more recent experience as singletons to color their evaluation of the conjoined experience, leaving them unable to say with certainty how conjoined twins who had never been singletons actually feel. In a sense, the experience of separation would make them us, and thus they would be in the same difficult position that we are in when we try to imagine the experience of being conjoined.
Becoming singletons would affect their views of the past in ways that they could not simply set aside. In other words, people can be wrong in the present when they say they were wrong in the past.
Stretching Experience Lori and Reba have not done many of the things that for the rest of us give rise to feelings near the top of the happiness scale—cartwheels, scuba diving, name your poison—and surely this must make a difference.
One possibility is that their impoverished experiential background would squish their language. But another possibility is that their impoverished experiential background would not squish their language so much as it would stretch their experience—that is, when they say eight they mean exactly the same thing we mean when we say eight because when they receive a birthday cake they feel exactly the same way that the rest of us feel when we do underwater cartwheels along the Great Barrier Reef.
Figure 7 illustrates the experience-stretching hypothesis. The experience-stretching hypothesis suggests that when given a birthday cake, Lori and Reba talk about their feelings the same way you do but feel something different. Experience stretching is a bizarre phrase but not a bizarre idea. But the experience-stretching hypothesis suggests that I too could have been happy without cigars if only I had not experienced their pharmacological mysteries in my wayward youth.
I could press both my luck and my marriage by advancing the language-squishing hypothesis, carefully explaining to my wife that because she has never experienced the pungent earthiness of a Montecristo no. I would lose, of course, because I always do, but in this case I would deserve it.
But when I first learned to play as a teenager, I would sit upstairs in my bedroom happily strumming those three chords until my parents banged on the ceiling and invoked their rights under the Geneva Convention.
I suppose we could try the language-squishing hypothesis here and say that my eyes have been opened by my improved musical abilities and that I now realize I was not really happy in those teenage days. A man who is given a drink of water after being lost in the Mojave Desert for a week may at that moment rate his happiness as eight. A year later, the same drink might induce him to feel no better than two. If impoverished experiential backgrounds squish our language rather than stretch our experience, then children who say they are delighted by peanut butter and jelly are just plain wrong, and they will admit it later in life when they get their first bite of goose liver, at which time they will be right, until they get older and begin to get heartburn from fatty foods, at which time they will realize that they were wrong then too.
Every day would be a repudiation of the day before, as we experienced greater and greater happiness and realized how thoroughly deluded we were until, conveniently enough, now.
So which hypothesis is correct? Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before. Our innocence is lost and we cannot go home again. The separated twins may be able to tell us how they now feel about having been conjoined, but they cannot tell us how conjoined twins who have never experienced separation feel about it. After seven months, Shackleton and five of his crewmen boarded a small lifeboat in which they spent three weeks crossing eight hundred miles of frigid, raging ocean.
Upon reaching South Georgia Island, the starving, frostbitten men prepared to disembark and cross the island on foot in the hope of reaching a whaling station on the other side. No one had ever survived that trek. Facing almost certain death that morning, Shackleton wrote: We passed through the narrow mouth of the cove with the ugly rocks and waving kelp close on either side, turned to the east, and sailed merrily up the bay as the sun broke through the mists and made the tossing waters sparkle around us.
We were a curious-looking party on that bright morning, but we were feeling happy. We even broke into song, and, but for our Robinson Crusoe appearance, a casual observer might have taken us for a picnic party sailing in a Norwegian fjord or one of the beautiful sounds of the west coast of New Zealand.
Could his happy be our happy, and is there any way to tell? What do psychology professors say when they pass each other in the hallway? And yet, strange as it is, there are times when people seem not to know their own hearts. We can be wrong about all sorts of things—the price of soybeans, the life span of dust mites, the history of flannel—but can we be wrong about our own emotional experience?
Read on. Dazed and Confused But not just yet. Before you read on, I challenge you to stop and have a nice long look at your thumb. Now, I will wager that you did not accept my challenge. I will wager that you went right on reading because looking at your thumb is so easy that it makes for rather pointless sport—everyone bats a thousand and the game is called on account of boredom. But if looking at your thumb seems beneath you, just consider what actually has to happen for us to see an object in our environment—a thumb, a glazed doughnut, or a rabid wolverine.
This is complicated stuff—so complicated that no scientist yet understands precisely how it happens and no computer can simulate the trick—but it is just the sort of complicated stuff that brains do with exceptional speed and accuracy.
In fact, they perform these analyses with such proficiency that we have the experience of simply looking leftward, seeing a wolverine, feeling afraid, and preparing to do all further analysis from the safety of a sycamore.
Think for a moment about how looking ought to happen. But human brains were not designed from scratch. As it turns out, running with great haste from rabid wolverines is much more important than knowing what they are. As such, our brains are designed to decide first whether objects count and to decide later what those objects are.
This means that when you turn your head to the left, there is a fraction of a second during which your brain does not know that it is seeing a wolverine but does know that it is seeing something scary.
But how can that be? To understand how this can happen, just consider how you would go about identifying a person who is walking toward you across a vast expanse of desert.
The first thing to catch your eye would be a small flicker of motion on the horizon. As you stared, you would soon notice that the motion was that of an object moving toward you. Your identification of Aunt Mabel would progress—that is, it would begin quite generally and become more specific over time, until finally it terminated in a family reunion.
Similarly, the identification of a wolverine at your elbow progresses over time—albeit just a few milliseconds— and it too progresses from the general to the specific. Research demonstrates that there is enough information in the very early, very general stages of this identification process to decide whether an object is scary, but not enough information to know what the object is. Once our brains decide that they are in the presence of something scary, they instruct our glands to produce hormones that create a state of heightened physiological arousal—blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, pupils contract, muscles tense—which prepares us to spring into action.
Before our brains have finished the full-scale analysis that will allow us to know that the object is a wolverine, they have already put our bodies into their ready-to-run-away modes—all pumped up and raring to go. The fact that we can feel aroused without knowing exactly what it is that has aroused us has important implications for our ability to identify our own emotions.
As it turned out, the men who had met the woman as they were crossing the bridge were much more likely to call her in the coming days. The men who met the woman in the middle of a shaky, swaying suspension bridge were experiencing intense physiological arousal, which they would normally have identified as fear.
But because they were being interviewed by an attractive woman, they mistakenly identified their arousal as sexual attraction.
Apparently, feelings that one interprets as fear in the presence of a sheer drop may be interpreted as lust in the presence of a sheer blouse—which is simply to say that people can be wrong about what they are feeling. It is possible to mistake fear for lust, apprehension for guilt,7 shame for anxiety.
Is it possible to believe we are feeling something when we are actually feeling nothing at all? The philosopher Daniel Dennett put the question this way: Suppose someone is given the post-hypnotic suggestion that upon awakening he will have a pain in his wrist.
If the hypnosis works, is it a case of pain, hypnotically induced, or merely a case of a person who has been induced to believe he has a pain? If one answers that the hypnosis has induced real pain, suppose the post-hypnotic suggestion had been: But give this idea a second blush while considering the following scenario. People are strolling by and taking in the fine morning, and the amorous activities of a young couple at a nearby table attest to the eternal wonder of spring.
The song of a scarlet tanager punctuates the yeasty scent of new croissants that wafts from the bakery. The article you are reading on campaign-finance reform is quite interesting and all is well—until suddenly you realize you are now reading the third paragraph, that somewhere in the middle of the first you started sniffing baked goods and listening to bird chirps, and that you now have absolutely no idea what the story you are reading is about. Did you actually read that second paragraph, or did you merely dream it?
You take a quick look back and, sure enough, all the words are familiar. As you read them again you can even recall hearing them spoken a few moments ago by that narrator in your head who sounds astonishingly like you and whose voice was submerged for a paragraph or two beneath the sweet distractions of the season. Two questions confront us. First, did you experience the paragraph the first time you read it? Second, if so, did you know you were experiencing it? The answers are yes and no, respectively.
Had there been an eye tracker at your table, it would have revealed that you did not stop reading at any point. Now, let me slow down for a moment and tread carefully around these words lest you start listening for the high-pitched tones of the indigo bunting.
The two words can normally be substituted in ordinary conversation without much damage, but they are differently inflected. One gives us the sense of being engaged, whereas the other gives us the sense of being cognizant of that engagement.
One denotes reflection while the other denotes the thing being reflected. In fact, awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience. Dogs are not people, the other replies, so of course they are not conscious. Both arguers are probably right. Dogs probably do have an experience of yellow and sweet: There is something it is like to be a dog standing before a sweet, yellow thing, even if human beings can never know what that something is.
We pop a ladyfinger into our mouths, we experience sweetness, we know we are experiencing sweetness, and nothing about any of this seems even remotely challenging. Now hit play and imagine that your mind wanders away, gets lost, and never comes back. Imagine that as you experience the newspaper article, your awareness becomes permanently unbound from your experience, and you never catch yourself drifting away—never return to the moment with a start to discover that you are reading.
The young couple at the nearby table stop pawing each other long enough to lean over and ask you for the latest news on the campaign-finance reform bill, and you patiently explain that you could not possibly know that because, as they would surely see if only they would pay attention to something other than their glands, you are happily listening to the sounds of spring and not reading a newspaper.
The young couple is perplexed by this response, because as far as they can see, you do indeed have a newspaper in your hands and your eyeballs are, in fact, running rapidly across the page even as you deny it. After a bit of whispering and one more smooch, they decide to run a test to determine whether you are telling the truth.
But it appears that the only way to get these strange people to mind their own business is to tell them something, so you pull a number out of thin air. This scenario may seem too bizarre to be real after all, how likely is it that forty-one senators would actually vote for campaign-finance reform?
Our visual experience and our awareness of that experience are generated by different parts of our brains, and as such, certain kinds of brain damage specifically, lesions to the primary visual cortical receiving area known as V1 can impair one without impairing the other, causing experience and awareness to lose their normally tight grip on each other.
For example, people who suffer from the condition known as blindsight have no awareness of seeing, and will truthfully tell you that they are completely blind. On the other hand, the same scans reveal relatively normal activity in the areas associated with vision. She is seeing, if by seeing we mean experiencing the light and acquiring knowledge about its location, but she is blind, if by blind we mean that she is not aware of having seen. Her eyes are projecting the movie of reality on the little theater screen in her head, but the audience is in the lobby getting popcorn.
This dissociation between awareness and experience can cause the same sort of spookiness with regard to our emotions. Others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that, much to the chagrin of our romantic partners, consists primarily of good, not so good, and I already told you.
For instance, when researchers show volunteers emotionally evocative pictures of amputations and car wrecks, the physiological responses of alexithymics are indistinguishable from those of normal people. But when they are asked to make verbal ratings of the unpleasantness of those pictures, alexithymics are decidedly less capable than normal people of distinguishing them from pictures of rainbows and puppies.
Warm the Happyometer Once upon a time there was a bearded God who made a small, flat earth, and pasted it in the very middle of the sky so that human beings would be at the center of everything. Then physics came along and complicated the picture with big bangs, quarks, branes, and superstrings, and the payoff for all that critical analysis is that now, several hundred years later, most people have no idea where they are.
Psychology has also created problems where once there were none by exposing the flaws in our intuitive understandings of ourselves. Maybe the universe has several small dimensions tucked inside the large ones, maybe time will eventually stand still or flow backward, and maybe folks like us were never meant to fathom a bit of it.
But one thing we can always count on is our own experience. If the goal of science is to make us feel awkward and ignorant in the presence of things we once understood perfectly well, then psychology has succeeded above all others. But like happiness, science is one of those words that means too many things to too many people and is thus often at risk of meaning nothing at all.
My own definition of science is a bit more eclectic, but one thing about which I, my dad, and most other scientists can agree is that if a thing cannot be measured, then it cannot be studied scientifically. It can be studied, and one might even argue that the study of such unquantifiables is more worthwhile than all the sciences laid end to end.
But it is not science because science is about measurement, and if a thing cannot be measured—cannot be compared with a clock or a ruler or something other than itself—it is not a potential object of scientific inquiry.
All of this suggests that the scientific study of subjective experience is bound to be tough going. Tough, yes, but not impossible, because the chasm between experiences can be bridged—not with steel girders or a six-lane toll road, mind you, but with a length of reasonably sturdy rope—if we accept three premises. Measuring Right The first premise is something that any carpenter could tell you: Imperfect tools are a real pain, but they sure beat pounding nails with your teeth.
But if we do that, then it is only fair that we hand them the study of almost everything else as well.
Chronometers, thermometers, barometers, spectrometers, and every other device that scientists use to measure the objects of their interest are imperfect. Every one of them introduces some degree of error into the observations it allows, which is why governments and universities pay obscene sums of money each year for the slightly more perfect version of each. And if we are purging ourselves of all things that afford us only imperfect approximations of the truth, then we need to discard not only psychology and the physical sciences but law, economics, and history as well.
In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavors, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album. So maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining.
The second premise is that of all the flawed measures of subjective experience that we can take, the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual is the least flawed. For example, electromyography allows us to measure the electrical signals produced by the striated muscles of the face, such as the corrugator supercillia, which furrows our brows when we experience something unpleasant, or the zygomaticus major, which pulls our mouths up toward our ears when we smile.
Physiography allows us to measure the electrodermal, respiratory, and cardiac activity of the autonomic nervous system, all of which change when we experience strong emotions. Electroencephalography, positron-emission tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging allow us to measure electrical activity and blood flow in different regions of the brain, such as the left and right prefrontal cortex, which tend to be active when we are experiencing positive and negative emotions, respectively.
Even a clock can be a useful device for measuring happiness, because startled people tend to blink more slowly when they are feeling happy than when they are feeling fearful or anxious. After all, the only reason why we take any of these bodily events—from muscle movement to cerebral blood flow—as indices of happiness is that people tell us they are. If everyone claimed to feel raging anger or thick, black depression when their zygomatic muscle contracted, their eyeblink slowed, and the left anterior brain region filled with blood, then we would have to revise our interpretations of these physiological changes and take them as indices of unhappiness instead.
She may not always remember what she felt before, and she may not always be aware of what she is feeling right now. We may be puzzled by her reports, skeptical of her memory, and worried about her ability to use language as we do. We will have greater confidence in her claims when they jibe with what other, less privileged observers tell us, when we feel confident that she evaluates her experience against the same background that we do, when her body does what most other bodies do when they experience what she is claiming to experience, and so on.
But even when all of these various indices of happiness dovetail nicely, we cannot be perfectly sure that we know the truth about her inner world. We can, however, be sure that we have come as close as observers ever get, and that has to be good enough. But if we are cognizant of the scratch, we can do our best to factor it out of our observations, reminding ourselves that what looks like a rip in space is really just a flaw in the device we are using to observe it.
The answer lies in a phenomenon that statisticians call the law of large numbers. Many of us have a mistaken idea about large numbers, namely, that they are like small numbers, only bigger. As such, we expect them to do more of what small numbers do but not to do anything different. So, for instance, we know that two neurons swapping electrochemical signals across their axons and dendrites cannot possibly be conscious. Nerve cells are simple devices, less complex than walkie-talkies from Sears, and they do one simple thing, namely, react to the chemicals that reach them by releasing chemicals of their own.
If we blithely go on to assume that ten billion of these simple devices can only do ten billion simple things, we would never guess that billions of them can exhibit a property that two, ten, or ten thousand cannot. Consciousness is precisely this sort of emergent property—a phenomenon that arises in part as a result of the sheer number of interconnections among neurons in the human brain and that does not exist in any of the parts or in the interconnection of just a few.
We know that subatomic particles have the strange and charming ability to exist in two places at once, and if we assume that anything composed of these particles must behave likewise, we should expect all cows to be in all possible barns at the same time. Which they obviously are not, because fixedness is another one of those properties that emerges from the interaction of a terribly large number of terribly tiny parts that do not themselves have it.
In short, more is not just more—it is sometimes other—than less. The magic of large numbers works along with the laws of probability to remedy many of the problems associated with the imperfect measurement of subjective experience.
As such, if you have nothing better to do on a Tuesday evening, I invite you to meet me at the Grafton Street Pub in Harvard Square and play an endearingly mindless game called Splitting the Tab with Dan. We flip a coin, I call heads, you call tails, and the loser pays the good barkeep, Paul, for our beers each time. Now, if we flipped the coin four times and I won on three of them, you would undoubtedly chalk it up to bad luck on your part and challenge me to darts. But if we flipped the coin four million times and I won on three million of them, then you and your associates would probably send out for a large order of tar and feathers.
But when numbers are large, such imperfections stop mattering. There may have been a dollop of sweat on the coin on a few of the flips, and there may have been a wayward puff of air on a few others, and these imperfections might well account for the fact that the coin came up heads once more than expected when we flipped it four times.
But what are the odds that these imperfections could have caused the coin to come up heads a million more times than expected? Infinitesimal, your intuition tells you, and your intuition is spot on. The odds are as close to infinitesimal as things on earth get without disappearing altogether. This same logic can be applied to the problem of subjective experience.
Suppose we were to give a pair of volunteers a pair of experiences that were meant to induce happiness—say, by giving a million dollars to one of them and the gift of a small-caliber revolver to the other. We then ask each volunteer to tell us how happy he or she is.
The nouveau riche volunteer says she is ecstatic, and the armed volunteer says he is mildly pleased though perhaps not quite as pleased as one ought to make an armed volunteer. Is it possible that the two are actually having the same subjective emotional experiences but describing them differently? The new millionaire may be demonstrating politeness rather than joy. Or perhaps the new pistol owner is experiencing ecstasy but, because he recently shook the hand of God near the Great Barrier Reef, is describing his ecstasy as mere satisfaction.
These problems are real problems, significant problems, and we would be foolish to conclude on the basis of these two reports that happiness is not, as it were, a warm gun. But if we gave away a million pistols and a million envelopes of money, and if 90 percent of the people who got new money claimed to be happier than 90 percent of the people who got new weapons, the odds that we are being deceived by the idiosyncrasies of verbal descriptions become very small indeed.
But if this were to happen over and over again with hundreds or thousands of people, some of whom tasted the coconut-cream pie before the banana-cream pie and some of whom tasted it after, we would have good reason to suspect that different pies really do give rise to different experiences, one of which is more pleasant than the other. After all, what are the odds that everyone misremembers banana-cream pie as better and coconut-cream pie as worse than they really were?
In other words, if the experience and description scales are calibrated a bit differently for every person who uses them, then it is impossible for scientists to compare the claims of two people. Two is too small a number, and when it becomes two hundred or two thousand, the different calibrations of different individuals begin to cancel one another out. After all, we may have used pickled rulers.
But if hundreds of people with hundreds of rulers stepped up to one of these objects and took its measurements, we could average those measurements and feel reasonably confident that a tyrannosaurus is indeed bigger than a root vegetable. After all, what are the odds that all the people who measured the dinosaur just so happened to have used stretched rulers, and that all the people who measured the turnip just so happened to have used squished rulers?
The bottom line is this: When a fruit salad, a lover, or a jazz trio is just too imperfect for our tastes, we stop eating, kissing, and listening. But the law of large numbers suggests that when a measurement is too imperfect for our tastes, we should not stop measuring.
Quite the opposite—we should measure again and again until niggling imperfections yield to the onslaught of data. By the same logic, the careful collection of a large number of experiential reports allows the imperfections of one to cancel out the imperfections of another. The science of happiness requires that we play the odds, and thus the information it provides us is always at some risk of being wrong.