Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Culture: Fumbling Happiness

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In his best-seller, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert makes the case that the main reason people are not as happy as they could be is that they don't believe the examples they see around them. Rather than evaluating what would make the "average person" happy and following that path, they consider themselves as too different from the average person and come up with reasons why that wouldn't work for them, and instead stay within their less satisfactory comfort zones or otherwise undermine their own happiness.

I actually have a slightly different take on the human tendency to not accurately foresee what will make oneself happy. While I probably have a better case to make about being far from average than most, I can accept that my tendency to be happy in a given situation is at least reasonably similar to people from the "spiritual" world of personalities, which if we believe Bob Cooley represent about a quarter of the population. I've always watched how other people, whether "spiritual" or not, react to situations and tried not to personally repeat their mistakes, marveling at other people that had to actually try everything themselves and experience exactly what others had already gone through.

Yet, I still think Gilbert's advice is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to follow. It's not because I don't believe that I won't react to things the way other people will, but because my circumstances are not similar enough to those that other people have faced. On truly generic matters, like reaction to switching between the eastern and western coast of the United States, or moving far away from family, I can believe that I would react like an average person. But, when facing nuanced decisions between alternate paths that really matter in life, the details matter, and finding situations with comparable details is almost impossible.

For example, I've heard about a number of people who chose between living where they wanted to live and taking a job that would have been much better. There is data to use in evaluating that decision. Yet, couldn't it make a difference if that better job actually involves a team of people that one not only has worked with before, but strongly trust? How many people do you know that had that element in such a choice? There are plenty of situations in which someone made significant career or personal sacrifices for the sake of a romantic relationship. But, don't the qualities and longevity of that relationship make a difference, as well as the absoluteness of the sacrifices? How does one find a similar enough relationship, with the sacrifices coming at a similar point in that relationship, to use as a guide?

Gilbert can argue that statistics can be our best friend, that the average reaction of a large group of people is most likely to be our own reaction in similar circumstances. Yet, if one can't amass enough valid statistics because it's hard to find someone else with such a unique background that might impact on the success of one's own decision as the person actually involved in one's life, then it's hard to garner a large enough sample for statistical validity.

Anyway, that's my excuse if I make a decision that doesn't make me happy.

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