May 01, 2007

Cassandra

The Smithsonian magazine has a brief interview (and the Web site an expanded one) with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. There's much of interest here, particularly this bit (from page two) on the evolutionary function of happiness:

Happiness is the gauge the mind uses to know if it's doing what's right. When I say what's right, I mean in the evolutionary sense, not in the moral sense. Nature could have wired you up with knowing 10,000 rules about how to mate, when to eat, where to seek shelter and safety. Or it could simply have wired you with one prime directive: Be happy. You've got a needle that can go from happy to unhappy, and your job in life is to get it as close to H as possible. As you're walking through woods, when that needle starts going towards U, for unhappy, turn around, do something else, see if you can get it to go toward H. As it turns out, all the things that push the needle toward H—salt, fat, sugar, sex, warmth, security—are just the things you need to survive. I think of happiness as a kind of fitness-o-meter. It's the way the organism is constantly updated about whether its behavior is in support of, or opposition to, its own evolutionary fitness.

I also liked this bit, on our ability to predict our future happiness (I would add: our ability to predict anything):

Q: When did you first realize that people were bad at forecasting their emotional states?

A: It first occurred to me about 15 years ago. I was watching myself go through some very difficult times of life and realizing that, by and large, I was doing much better than I would have predicted if you’d asked me a year or two ago. Being a scientist, I went right to the scientific literature to see what I could learn about this interesting phenomenon. What I found was, there wasn't scientific literature on it. So my colleague Tim Wilson and I teamed up and decided to do a couple little experiments to see if most people were as bad as predicting their emotional future as I had been. Turns out they were. The effect was very robust and what become quickly interesting was not whether this happened, because obvious it does, but why.

I don't know why it happens, but it explains why Cassandra -- the one person who can see the future -- is such an effective character. Maddening to be among the rest of us, who are so uniformly bad at it...

Posted by Ideofact at May 1, 2007 11:07 PM
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