Must-reads: Michael Pollan and Daniel Gilbert

Do you have a minute? Go read Michael

Pollan on nutritionism in the New York Times. It’ll change the way you think

about food, and how you eat. All that mumbo-jumbo about vitamins and minerals

and nutrients and good fats and bad fats and so on and so forth? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Just eat food – not health food, just food – and try not to eat

too much, and don’t overdo it on the meat, and you’ll be fine. A stunning, wonderful

piece of contrarian writing.

Maybe you have enough time to read a book? Just one? Go read Daniel Gilbert’s

Stumbling on Happiness,

an even more wonderful piece of contrarian writing. Once again, it’ll make you

change the way you look at the world, only this time it’s not just food, it’s

everything. Why is it that the things we think will make us happy,

don’t? And why is it that the things we think will make us unhappy,

don’t? Gilbert has really, really good explanations for both of these things

– plus he’s a fantastic prose stylist. Here’s a little taster:

To my knowledge, no one has ever done a systematic study of people who’ve

been left standing at the altar by a cold-footed fiancé. But I’m willing

to bet a good bottle of wine that if you rounded up a healhty sample of almost-brides

and nearly grooms and asked them whether they would describe the incident

as "the worst thing that ever happened to me" or "the best

thing that ever happened to me," more would endorse the latter description

than the former. And I’ll bet an entire case of that wine that if

you found a sample of people who’d never been through this experience and

asked them to predict which of all their possible future experiences they

are most likely to look back on as "the best thing that ever happened

to me," not one of them will list "getting jilted". Like so

many things, getting jilted is more painful in prospect and more rosy in retrospect.

Or this thrown-away aside:

Rare events naturally have a greater emotional impact than common events

do. We are awed by a solar eclipse but merely impressed by a sunset despite

the fact that the latter is by far the more spectacular visual treat.

Gilbert’s main point, for me, comes later, when he talks a bit about the power

of ideas, and how false beliefs can be self-perpetuating. One such false belief,

which is pretty obviously self-perpetuating (although less obviously false:

for that you need empirical studies, which Gilbert provides) is that having

children makes you happy. People who have that belief tend to have more children,

and pretty soon most of the world believes it to be true, even though it isn’t.

The other such false belief, of course, and to oversimplify a little bit, is

that having more money will make you happy, or that having less money will make

you less happy.

In general, concludes Gilbert, we’re often very, very, very bad at predicting

what’s going to make us happy and what isn’t. On the other hand, there’s a very

reliable way of making exactly that prediction, which no one’s likely to ever

use: simply look at other people in the situation we’re thinking of putting

ourselves in, and ask ourselves if they’re happy. The fact is that their happiness

level is a much better predictor of our happiness level in that situation than

is our own intuition. Humans are basically all the same: it’s just that we concentrate

on the differences between us so much that we forget how similar we all are.

Which is not necessarily to say that if you want to be happy you should take

up blogging, even though it’s making me very happy at the moment. But hey –

give it a go!

UPDATE, from comments: Check out Dan Gilbert’s TED talk. It’s great.

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4 Responses to Must-reads: Michael Pollan and Daniel Gilbert

  1. Tom says:

    I like the sunset example. I have a major beef with people travelling across the world to go to New Zealand to see the wilderness and the mountains. Ask them if they’ve been to the Highlands in Scotland and most of them look at you like you’ve suggested a weekend in Bognor. Sure, there is certainly some additional hapiness value based on the uniqueness and frequency of an experience and the ball ache involved in having that experience. Not sure it justifies schlepping across the world to see some mountains, though.

    The kids quote gives people like me in their early 30s with eager wives the heebie jeebies.

  2. Anne says:

    There is a great .

  3. I dunno, Felix. The idea that one might use other people’s observed happiness as a proxy for one’s own in the same situation strikes me as problematic on a couple of levels:

    A) You can’t actually observe their level of happiness. You can possibly gather clues and develop a proxy measure, but ultimately I think you’re forced to rely on self-reporting.

    B) Amongst the many other things that people suck at, they tend to badly over-estimate how good a driver/stock-picker/golfer/everything else they are. Why should I give any particular weight to how happy they think they are?

    Also, I’m forced to wonder (without having read the book) whether the author is talking about some absolute cutoff above/below which one qualifies as happy/unhappy, or an incremental measure. Do kids or money make you happy? Well, no, nothing in particular makes me happy. I do believe, however, that having kids and making more money have made me happier than some alternative paths. The money effect is pretty easy to see, too. The kids are an irreversible condition, so while I think I feel happier there really isn’t any way to control for other stuff. But I’ve gone through various periods where I’ve had more or less disposable income, and I’ve generally felt better when there was more of it. Of course, then we get into whether this is a direct effect or a knock-on effect: possibly I’ve been happier with more disposable income because more income means fewer arguments/tough decisions with my wife, and it is actually a peaceful relationship with my wife which makes me happy, the income being merely one path to that end. Etc, etc. The whole thing looks really questionable to me.

    But I’ll pick up the book. Maybe I’ll be even happier! :^)

  4. Felix says:

    Bernard, you’re quite right that we have to rely on self-reporting to judge how happy people are. The intuition is that people might be bad at predicting how happy they will be in the future, or remembering how happy they were in the past, but they’re pretty good at reporting how happy they are in the present. If there’s a systematic overstatement, that’s fine, so long as it’s systematic. The important thing is the changes in where people report they stand on a happiness spectrum. And so yes, Gilbert is talking about incremental happiness. And he’s happy to say that there is *some* incremental happiness to earning more money. Just not nearly as much as people think there will be.

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