Happy with your life? If so, that’s as much a function of random chance as anything, according to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert convincingly debunks the notion that our past emotional states, present experiences, and imagined futures can be accurate predictors of our actual future levels of happiness. As he describes it, most of us wrongly believe that how we felt when we experienced an event in the past can be a telling predictor of how we will feel about that same event in the future. (Last time I drank tequila I felt ill, therefore I will never enjoy a margarita again.)
According to Gilbert, we also incorrectly imagine that how we feel about a situation we are experiencing right now is how we will feel about it in the future. (I will love you 'til the end of time.) We fail to recognize that things will look different once they actually happen. In specific, potential future events we regard with dread turn out to be not as abominable as previously imagined. (Having my fiancée jilt me at the altar was the best thing that ever happened to me.)
After discrediting these three means most of us use to predict our future happiness (and the tools we use to make decisions about relationships, marriages, careers, and just about everything else, monumental and not-so-monumental), Gilbert argues that the only accurate way to make predictions about our future happiness is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them about it. This argument falls apart, however, when examined from a statistical perspective.
Gilbert cites a number of studies in which volunteers are asked to predict their future happiness based on either (a) their expected future satisfaction, or (b) the reported experience of prior study participants. In each example, participants’ actual happiness more closely matches the happiness levels of past participants than their own predictions of their own satisfaction.
For example, a group of volunteers was fed some potato chips and reported their resulting enjoyment level. Next, a new group of volunteers was fed a large quantity of salty snacks then asked to predict how much they would enjoy potato chips the next day. Other stuffed volunteers were not told what the next day’s snack would be but were instead shown the report of one randomly selected individual who had already reported their potato chip snacking satisfaction. When asked to predict how much they would enjoy the next day’s snack, they had no choice other than to rely on the randomly selected individual’s satisfaction level. It turns out that volunteers in the second group, who had no opportunity to rely on their own tastes or preferences and instead relied on the report of the randomly selected individual, were far more accurate in predicting their actual potato chip enjoyment than volunteers in the first group.
Other studies Gilbert cites involve pizza, ice cream, completion of boring tasks, failure to receive a gift certificate, and immersion of part of the body in ice water. In study after study, volunteers’ actual pleasure or pain resembled more closely the average pleasure/pain levels of a previous group of volunteers than their own actual predicted feelings. Thus, Gilbert argues, the only way to predict our own future happiness is to ask someone who is experiencing the event we are considering and ask them about their feelings.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that Gilbert ignores the concept of variance in the studies he cites. In the studies Gilbert describes, average participant satisfaction levels mirror average prior participant satisfaction levels pretty closely. As anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of statistics can tell you, two samples with the same average can differ dramatically in their variance, that is the range and frequency of high to low responses. Further, sampling responses tend to be normally distributed in a bell-shaped curve around an average response, when in fact the actual distribution of the population may look very different.
For instance, surveying a sample of Americans on their opinion of George W. Bush on a scale of 1-5 might lead you to believe that we’re all pretty neutral about the president, when in fact roughly two thirds of the country feels he’s incompetent and one third feels he’s the right man for our times. Given the strength of emotion about the president, you’d likely find far more responses on the poles (1s or 5s) than in the middle. By looking at the average of responses without considering the variance, you’d miss this polarity and come to the mistaken conclusion that most of us are without strong emotion either way.
Gilbert presents studies that report only average satisfaction levels and omits information on the variance of participants’ responses. Therefore, depending on which individual we choose to ask about their actual satisfaction level of an event they are experiencing presently, we could get extremely varying responses. If we had the luxury to ask enough individuals to get a statistically valid sample size, Gilbert’s argument might hold water. Instead, however, he suggests that asking one person would be sufficient.
The second problem with Gilbert’s argument is that he assumes selecting an individual at random from the general population as a surrogate for our own feelings is possible, when indeed for most of us it is not. Most of us run in circles that are influenced by where we live, where we work, where we went to school, what kinds of families we came from. Therefore, an African American Baptist from Charleston is more likely to know more African American evangelical southerners than a Polish Catholic steelworker from Pittsburgh. So, even if we tried to select at random, our circle of acquaintances would inevitably be skewed by the circumstances of our own lives and far from random in actuality.
Given the shortcomings of the "ask someone else approach" to predicting our future happiness, Gilbert’s book is aptly named. As he convincingly argues, we cannot with any reliability use our pasts, current states, or imagined futures as accurate predictors of our own future emotional states. And, since we can’t really rely on the report of one randomly selected individual experiencing the event we are contemplating, we truly are left with no other choice — to continue to stumble and fumble and hope for happiness.