Thursday, April 14, 2005

Very interesting article archived from the NYT on the futile pursuit of happiness--describing, among other things, how we don't often know what will make us either happy or sad, and we always overestimate the impact these will have.

One experiment of Gilbert's had students in a photography class at Harvard choose two favorite pictures from among those they had just taken and then relinquish one to the teacher. Some students were told their choices were permanent; others were told they could exchange their prints after several days. As it turned out, those who had time to change their minds were less pleased with their decisions than those whose choices were irrevocable.

Much of Gilbert's research is in this vein. Another recent study asked whether transit riders in Boston who narrowly missed their trains experienced the self-blame that people tend to predict they'll feel in this situation. (They did not.) And a paper waiting to be published, ''The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad,'' examines why we expect that bigger problems will always dwarf minor annoyances. ''When really bad things happen to us, we defend against them,'' Gilbert explains. ''People, of course, predict the exact opposite. If you ask, 'What would you rather have, a broken leg or a trick knee?' they'd probably say, 'Trick knee.' And yet, if your goal is to accumulate maximum happiness over your lifetime, you just made the wrong choice. A trick knee is a bad thing to have.''