The Happiness of Pursuit

The Times magazine, on the other hand, has a great article on Daniel Gilbert's studies on our ability to predict our happiness (affective forecasting). Also cited are the works of Wilson, Kahneman and Loewenstein -- economists and psychologists all testing whether we're smart about maximizing utility.

"In other words, we might believe that a new BMW will make life perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; nor will it excite us for as long as predicted... On average, bad events proved less intense and more transient than test participants predicted. Good events proved less intense and briefer as well."

What's funny is how shallow this makes me -- I've long since realized that my car, my GPS, and yes, several friendships have generated a large and sustained "utility" -- greater than one might expect from an average guy. Maybe I'm lucky that such fulfillment is readily obtainable. Maybe I'm foolish that I haven't really re-oriented my life around any of these things. But if I did, if I binged, would they cease to amaze and delight?

"Our emotional defenses snap into action when it comes to a divorce or a disease but not for lesser problems. We fix the leaky roof on our house, but over the long haul, the broken screen door we never mend adds up to more frustration."

At last, a coherent justification for the speed-dial! Or command-key shortcuts. These options may saves a few seconds per operation, but can take hours to learn and implement. I don't think people really end up saving much time. But they DO diminish the frustration of repetitive tasks...

Money graf:
''Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.'' In this respect, the tendency toward adaptation suggests why the impact bias is so pervasive. As Tim Wilson says: ''We don't realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.''

I think this gets back to a dilemma I noticed in (here come the googles) Star Trek. Kirk and company are always striving to improve themselves, yet they revel in humanity's inefficiencies and imperfections. These utopians have learned from Gilbert's observations and can anticipate their affect adaptations. Thus, they've chosen to make self-improvement itself the source of their happiness, rather than a measurable gain in knowledge or skill (let alone materialistic gains).

Yet Gilbert warns:
''I don't think I want to give up all these motivations,'' he says, ''that belief that there's the good and there's the bad and that this is a contest to try to get one and avoid the other. I don't think I want to learn too much from my research in that sense.'' ... ''When choosing between two jobs, you wouldn't sweat as much because you'd say: 'You know, I'll be happy in both. I'll adapt to either circumstance pretty well, so there's no use in killing myself for the next week.' But maybe our caricatures of the future -- these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be -- maybe it's these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don't want a society of people who shrug and say, 'It won't really make a difference.'

''Maybe it's important for there to be carrots and sticks in the world, even if they are illusions,'' he adds. ''They keep us moving towards carrots and away from sticks.''

Now, this reminds me of Vonnegut and coping with futility. But rather than concede we will always overestimate a change in affect, I think it's wise to explore things we find surprisingly enjoyable. Rotate through variety of pursuits -- hiking, research, writing, whatever -- that don't fade as quickly when attained, that leave you richer for having tried it. Yeah, in the end you might be just as happy if you bought a big TV and watched it, but at least my way you'll have more vivid and fond memories. And that's the gift that keeps giving.