Do you know what makes you happy?

“You are wrong to believe that a new kitchen will make you happy for as long as you imagine.”

Conversely, a tense marriage or a trick knee will give you more agony than you think. But most things matter less than we think they will, an old theme from the seventeenth century French moralist La Rochefoucauld. There is a good deal of experimental evidence that we make these “happiness mistakes” time and again, failing to learn from experience.

So argues Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, profiled in today’s New York Times Magazine (registration required). Daniel Kahneman, last year’s Nobel Laureate in economics (with Vernon Smith), once told me that time spent with friends, not new gadgets, is what people really enjoy.

Our brains are trying to regulate our behavior, not trying to make us happy. According to Tim Wilson,

“We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to use, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.”

We systematically fail to realize how powerful our psychological defenses are, once those defenses become activated. But Gilbert suggests we might need these carrots and sticks to get things done, even if they are illusions.

George Loewenstein, an economist at Carnegie-Mellon, says

“…he [Loewenstein] 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.”

I buy the basic claims about happiness, but dispute the political conclusion. To the extent we should care about happiness, our imperative is to boost the rate of economic growth, strengthen Western civilization, and hope that Western-style institutions spread around the world. All of these mean a heavy reliance on markets, incentives, and the rule of law.


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