Tomás Fano/flickr

Tomás Fano/flickr

Is it hard to be alone with your thoughts? French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that ”All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That seems like an exaggeration, but there’s recent research confirming the idea that we have a hard time sitting by ourselves with nothing but our brains to entertain us.

A team of researchers led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson had research participants sit alone in a room for anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. As reported in The Atlantic, over the course of 6 studies, 58% of the participants rated the difficulty of the task above the midpoint on a numerical scale, and 42% rated their level enjoyment below the midpoint.

That still means that a substantial number of participants ranked their enjoyment at or above the midpoint. Nonetheless, there is additional evidence that many people found the task unpleasant. Participants rated activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles far preferable to sitting with their thoughts. When participants were assigned to do the task at home, 32% admitted to cheating. And, amazingly, some participants preferred electric shock to their thoughts.

In the study involving shock, participants were hooked up to a generator and gave themselves a jolt of current before having to sit alone with their thoughts. Taking only the data from those participants who said they would be willing to pay money to not experience the shock again (thus presumably culling out the stray masochist from the sample), a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one shock during the period of time when they were alone with nothing to do but think.

Is the inability to sit quietly and reflect just a problem for Instagraming, Tweeting, Facebooking Millennials? No: enjoyment of the task was unrelated to either age or social media use. Perhaps our discomfort with such stillness is a modern phenomenon, but, if so, it seems that it is a feature of Modernism in the broad sense, going back at least to the 17th century, when Pascal penned the above comment.

“Be still, and know that I am God” the psalmist wrote (Psalm 46, NIV), suggesting that stillness is intimately associated with knowledge of God. Many of us desire to know God, but, if we are infected with the restlessness of the age, we may have difficulty sitting quietly enough to sense God’s presence. Perhaps, if we could make it our habit to sit and enter our interior space, we would find that we would plumb not just our own depths, but the heart of the ever-holy, ever-faithful, ever-loving One. We would then sense a power that electric current can’t hope to emulate!

In my previous post, I wrote about the book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist.  I didn’t much care for his belief that our momentary experience of satisfaction or pleasure is all that is meant by happiness, nor for his assumption that measures of that experience have much importance at all.  I didn’t say much about the main argument of his book, though, so I’ll remedy that omission here. 


Gilbert suggests that our ability to think about the future—to imagine some state of affairs that we anticipate happening—is what makes us uniquely human. Unfortunately, our imagination isn’t all we imagine it to be—it doesn’t do as well as we expect at accurately envisioning future events.  Why is that?  For one thing,  we fill in details of what a particular event will be like (Gilbert uses the example of a spaghetti dinner), with the particulars (canned or cooked; with tomato sauce, cream sauce, or no sauce) that may differ markedly from how the event actually transpires.  At the same time, we fail to include many pertinent features in our mental picture of what things will be like during that future event, such as the locale, our companions, the lighting, etc. Such features may have a tremendous impact on our emotional reactions to the event.  For example, in one study University of Virginia students overestimated how happy their football team’s upcoming victory over UNC would make them, probably because they thought only about the game and not about other events that occurred in close proximity, such as having to study for an exam or having a paper due. 


Besides anticipating some details incorrectly and omitting other things that are likely to occur, we are often erroneous in our expectations of how a future event will make us feel.  In general, we are likely to be less affected by negative events than we expected to be.  Another danger here is what Gilbert calls “presentism”, the tendency to think that future feelings will be like those we are having now.  Thus, the depressed person can’t imagine that even positive events will make him or her feel any better.  True, we do try to adjust our expectations, but, even then, we use present feelings as a starting point and don’t make sufficient adjustment from where we began (those familiar with Tversky and Kahneman’s work on cognitive heuristics might recognize this as an example of the anchoring heuristic).


Still another reason why we don’t feel as badly about things as we expected to is that we defend against unhappiness—we have what Gilbert characterizes as a psychological immune system to protect us from an overly negative view of ourselves and our situation.    Thus, the jilted lover comes up with reasons why being dumped was one of the best things that happened him or her, and the person who paid too much for crummy merchandise decides that this MP3 player or computer is the only one that has just the features they want.  We don’t anticipate constructing such rationalizations, though, so we expect that negative events will deflate us more than they do.


Gilbert does a good job of explaining each of the above points, and also marshals plenty of research evidence to support the argument.  His basic point—that we don’t do well at predicting how we will feel about future events—seems pretty well established.  If we don’t know what will make us happy, we aren’t very likely to choose well between possible courses of action.  Notice what Gilbert isn’t arguing, though. He’s not claiming that we have systematic biases that lead us to chose things that will make us unhappy:  the argument that we would be happy only if we chose X, but human nature makes us always chose Y instead.  For Gilbert, it’s something of a crapshoot; our imaginations fail us, so we are often making choices in the dark, or at least in lousy lighting.  His solution—to depend on the real-time reports of those who are undergoing the experience we are contemplating—may be helpful in some cases, though he has only tested it in matters such as predicting how one will feel after eating potato chips.  Before adopting such a strategy, I’d like to know how it works for predicting matters of more substance—how well it would predict how I would feel after switching careers, for example, or after retiring.

Before reading it, I imagined that the 2005 book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, was about the role of chance or serendipity in the pursuit of happiness.  Do we just come upon happiness without seeking it, or does it take an effort on our part?  Gilbert isn’t particularly interested in that question, though he does think that seeking happiness isn’t likely to get us anywhere. Specifically, we are lousy at figuring out what will make us happy, so our efforts to become happy usually are just shots in the dark.  Since we can’t predict at all well what will satisfy us, Gilbert advises us to read the research and take an empirically validated approach to planning our futures.


I’ll give my thoughts about the book, but first it seems only fair to evaluate my experience reading it by the standard Gilbert uses to weigh every other experience.  For him, the only useful standard is whether the experience produces happiness or pleasure, measured by asking for “the honest, real-time report of the attentive individual.” (page 71 in the Vintage paperback edition of the book)  This, he thinks, is all that people care about:


“Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does.  We don’t care about money or promotions or beach vacations per se; we care about the goodness or pleasure that these forms of wealth may (or may not) induce.  Wise choices are those that maximize our pleasure, not our dollars, and if we are to have any hope of choosing wisely, then we must correctly anticipate how much pleasure those dollars will buy us.”  (p. 260)


Using a methodology that would have pleased Gilbert, the minute I finished the book I answered the following question using a scale of 1 to 10:  “How much did you enjoy reading this book?”  I gave it a 2. 


According to Gilbert, you should take my rating seriously.  He claims that the best strategy to determine whether or not you would find some experience pleasant is to assume that you would like it about as much as someone else who already had the experience.  So, there you have it, if the book is in your reading list, you can just rate it as a pretty dismal read and move on to the next item.


Actually, I don’t particularly like Gilbert’s evaluative strategy, and I suspect that many of you would rate his book somewhat higher than I did.  Gilbert tried to be clever and entertaining in the examples he used; I was annoyed by this, but some of you may have enjoyed his efforts to amuse.  More significantly, I was disaffected  early on with Gilbert’s dismissal of eudaimonia, the notion (discussed in an earlier post) that a happy life is one that is well-lived or virtuous.  Gilbert quickly dismisses eudiamonia as not reflecting what we typically mean by the word “happiness” at all. (Why can’t we use two words, then?)  I suspect that a main reason he prefers to define happiness according to immediate subjective experience is that such experience is more easily measured than is the ethical quality of one’s life.  We psychologists are notorious for starting out trying to measure what’s important, but ending up deciding that what is important is what we’ve measured.  Gilbert seems to have made that error. 


Some of the studies that Gilbert cites seem to undermine the significance of the subjective measures of well-being that he prizes.  In one study, researchers used telephone interviews to ask people in different parts of the country how satisfied they were with their lives.  The researchers then compared the ratings obtained to the weather that day in each locale.  People who could look outside and see the sun reported that their lives were relatively happy, while people being rained on gave lower ratings of happiness.  Why should we be interested in maximizing a type of experience that is so ephemeral?  In another study, begun when the 2000 presidential election was still undecided, supporters of George Bush and Al Gore were asked how they would feel the day the election was decided either in favor of their candidate or his opponent.  The researchers contacted participants again on December 14, the day after Gore conceded, to assess their actual happiness, and, finally, assessed four months later what they remembered their happiness level had been on December 14.  In advance of Bush’s victory, his supporters overestimated how happy they would be, and conversely Gore supporters overestimated their eventual misery.  However, four months later both groups remembered having been much more elated or devastated than they actually had been.  So the supporter’s prediction of how they would feel and subsequent memory of how they felt actually corresponded, but didn’t match their emotions on the day itself.  We not only don’t know how happy we will be, we don’t know how happy we were.  Gilbert doesn’t ask the question that I would have asked: what has more significance in our lives, the months and years we anticipate and reminisce about how we will or did feel at a particular moment, or the feeling we had at that exact moment?  I don’t place as high a value on the pleasure of the moment as Gilbert does, and am inclined to consider the expectation and memory of events more important to the lives that each of us are constructing.


I guess it’s obvious that I don’t much like Gilbert’s emphasis on momentary feeling states.  I haven’t yet described the main features of his argument, though.  That will have to wait until a subsequent post.      

What would make you happy?  A new car?  A new house?  Better health?  A better relationship?  A financial windfall?  Or none of the above?


According some psychologists, the correct answer is “none of the above.”  They describe a “hedonic treadmill,” which inevitably returns people to their baseline level of happiness.  The concept was first suggested by psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell in 1971 and has been supported by several studies.  According to this theory, just as we experience sensory adaptation when our eyes adjust to a suddenly bright room, we experience emotional adaptation to life events.  Thus, that new car may thrill you the first week or so, but in fairly short order you return to your old-car level of happiness.


What evidence is there that we’re stuck in happiness homeostasis?  In an early study, lottery winners were found to be no happier than non-winners.   Individuals who sustained spinal cord injuries had strong negative emotions a week after their accidents, but were happy two months later.  Also, nationwide surveys in some countries found that increases in income weren’t associated with gains in life satisfaction.


The research support for the hedonic treadmill, never especially strong, has eroded some over the years.  For one thing, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that, on a sample of nations from which there is extensive survey data, life satisfaction increased as per capita GDP increased.  There would have been no such increase if everyone adapted to changes in life circumstances, as the hedonic treadmill would have it.  See Wolfers’ description of the findings here.   Also, an article in the American Psychologist by Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, and Christie Napa Scollon presented evidence that happiness levels can change over time.  For example, in a longitudinal study in Germany following individuals over a 17 year period, 24% of study participants had significantly changed levels of happiness over the course of the study.  A study spanning five years before and five years after major life events found that three such events—being widowed, divorcing, and being laid off from work—resulted in long-lasting changes in life satisfaction.  A fourth event—getting married—resulted only in short-term changes in life satisfaction followed by return to baseline. 


Diener et. al. point out that the research findings that they summarize do hide individual differences in adaptation.  For example, though on average people return to baseline after marrying, some research participants evidenced lasting improvements in their satisfaction level, while others showed long term declines.


The hedonic treadmill hasn’t been entirely discarded, but it certainly is not the universal phenomenon that Brickman and Campbell envisioned.  Significant life events can sometimes result in a permanent change in one’s life satisfaction.  Of equal interest, it now seems that at least some deliberate efforts to change life satisfaction can be successful.  In fact, some psychologists have designed intervention programs of this sort.  A book-length description of such a program is Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness.  Happiness seekers, get off your treadmills! 

Kelly Walter Carney sent me a link to an article on happiness published today in the Los Angeles Times. The author, Marnell Jameson, talks about the emprical research on happiness conducted mostly by psychologists over the last few decades. She notes that there has been something of an explosion in research on happiness since 2000. She appears to have talked to some of the leaders in the field, most notably Sonja Lyubomirsky and Martin Seligman. She’s obviously quite taken by the scientific study of happiness, and even claims, “Though many people think happiness is elusive, scientists have actually pinned it down and know how to get it.”

Izzat so? What great new things have her sources come up with to pretty much guarantee our lasting felicity? Practice gratitude. Forgive others. Engage in challenging activities. Find a meaning for your life. Hadn’t we heard of these things back in the dark ages before psychologists started studying happiness?

Actually, the article is a fairly good one, and I am glad that so many psychologists have devoted themselves to researching happiness. I just wonder whether they’ve generated all that many new approaches to becoming happy.

In an earlier post, I described the most important constructs that Daniel Nettle, in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, used to analyze our efforts to achieve happiness.  Compared with many of the psychologists who write about happiness, Nettle is more optimistic that happiness can be intentionally increased.  In this post, I’ll discuss the three avenues he points to for increasing one’s happiness.  They are: To reduce the impact of negative emotion, to increase the amount of positive emotion, and to stop thinking so much about happiness.


If, as Nettle maintains, our evolutionary heritage saddles us with overly intense and persistent negative emotions, what can we do about this?  We can override our “negative emotion programs” using “information from context, planning, logic, further reflection, and so on.”  (p. 149)  In particular, Nettle advocates the methods of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) to identify and replace irrational thoughts.  Ever since the Greeks, one line of philosophical thought has promoted using reason to control the passions; the current ascendance of CBT among therapeutic approaches seems a continuation of the rationalist trend.  As Nettle admits, though, simply decreasing negative thoughts doesn’t make one more happy, just less unhappy.


Nettle’s second suggestion is aimed at increasing the amount of positive emotion experienced.  He advocates “happiness training programmes” consisting mainly of “pleasant activity training.”  In brief, the person determines what activities he or she finds pleasant and deliberately engages in them more often.  Nettle holds that we are so busy chasing after the things we desire—the bigger salary, faster car, and the like—that we neglect doing what we enjoy.  Maybe so, but it seems to me that listening to my Dylan boxed set or drinking chocolate milk more often may increase my level of pleasure, but won’t make me happy.  Nettle reads like a hedonist here.


He moves away from hedonism in his last prescription, though.  He recommends that people get away from thinking about their emotional state and think instead about something other than themselves.  He suggests thinking about nature or religion, and also mentions favorably the Stoic emphasis on relinquishing desires.  In the end, he concludes that it probably isn’t such a good idea to devote oneself solely to pursuing happiness:


With important but limited returns from happiness, we may as well attempt to broaden our holding in the other stocks that make up good human life, such as purpose, community, solidarity, truth, justice, and beauty.  (p. 175)


By pursuing these other goods, we may arrive at a sense of fulfillment and completeness, and thereby paradoxically gain happiness.  Though it detracts from the main emphasis of his book, Nettle eventually concludes that we are most likely to be happy if we treat it like an escaped puppy, i.e. stop chasing it and wait for it to come to us.