Thursday, September 11, 2003

The Futile Pursuit of Happiness

How do we predict we'll feel about purchasing jewelry, having children, buying a big house or being rich? And then how do we regard the outcomes? According to this small corps of academics, almost all actions -- the decision to buy jewelry, have kids, buy the big house or work exhaustively for a fatter paycheck -- are based on our predictions of the emotional consequences of these events.

The happiness forecastors have determined that people are terrible at it.

This empathy gap in thought and behavior -- we cannot seem to predict how we will behave in a hot state when we are in a cold state -- affects happiness in an important but somewhat less consistent way than the impact bias. ''So much of our lives involves making decisions that have consequences for the future,'' Loewenstein says. ''And if our decision making is influenced by these transient emotional and psychological states, then we know we're not making decisions with an eye toward future consequences.''

Loewenstein, along with his collaborator Dr. Peter Ubel, has done a great deal of work showing that nonpatients overestimate the displeasure of living with the loss of a limb, for instance, or paraplegia. To use affective forecasting to prove that people adapt to serious physical challenges far better and will be happier than they imagine, Loewenstein says, could prove invaluable.

There are downsides to making public policy in light of this research, too. While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, Loewenstein tells me that he doesn't see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference. Nevertheless, he and Gilbert (who once declared in an academic paper, ''Windfalls are better than pratfalls, A's are better than C's, December 25 is better than April 15, and everything is better than a Republican administration'') seem to lean libertarian in regard to pushing any kind of prescriptive agenda.

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