forecasting happiness – mind the gap?

on 03-21-2012

I recently stumbled upon The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, Jon Gertner’s 2003 New York Times article where he explores what happens when three psychologists and an economist join forces to deconstruct happiness and examine it from whence it begins — as a decision-making process. Their study looks at how our existence is fueled by an on-going stream of decisions — from the minute to the major — based on our repeated attempts to make a basic prediction: Will this make me happy or unhappy?

I’ll cut to the chase: We humans SUCK at predicting what will make us happy. And as I apologize for using a crass word to summarize an erudite study, I need to use it again because we don’t just suck, apparently we SUCK REPEATEDLY.

Our lousy forecasting combined with our tendency to repeat bad decisions — within almost identical contexts and in variations on a theme — is so strong it may seem like we’ve stepped into the movie Groundhog Day . . . without Bill Murray to make us laugh.

The research team also found that shining light on the  decision-making process didn’t empower people. In fact, it yielded a  “does it really matter anyway” vibe because happiness quotients were eerily similar no matter what decisions were made.

Depressing? Potentially. But the eternal optimist in me is most attracted to psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory on why becoming better forecasters wouldn’t necessary be better for the human race. He wonders if “maybe the illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other are what we need to motor us through life.”

If what Gilbert calls our “caricatures of the future,” these “overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be,” make us passionate, resilient and driven to care about decision-making, maybe there’s a yet-undefined reason for our inability to accurately predict how much happiness a decision will deliver.  Would we rather be a bit happier thanks to more on-target predictions but resigned to an It won’t really make a difference philosophy that makes apathetic shrugs the norm?

I may not be great at forecasting happiness, but I believe being able to recognize the nuances of its presence  in my everyday life is what propels me.

I don’t see happiness as an explosion of joy or an unwavering state of being, but an extension of gratitude that fuels so much in my life, including my ability to make decisions about the things that matter most.


  1. Your comments are meaty and enjoyable.
    The whole concept made me think of decisions big and small that I’ve made with the idea that they would make me happy/satisfied.
    Some did. But the decision didn’t usually have anything to do with the outcome, which was often different from my original goal.
    Yes, I try to capture today’s reasons to be grateful. Not easy.

    • Like you, I looked back at several decisions and tried to remember the driving force behind each choice. Let’s just say it became clear why I don’t spend much time lingering in the past. I had some real “hindsight is 20/20” revelations that ranged from insightful to cringe-worthy to hilarious. Exhausting! 🙂

  2. I love this. I have to print it as well as share with my Facebook friends. These are interesting thoughts. I feel that we all need to give the ‘happiness concept’ further attention.

    • Thanks for your note. I just stepped outside into this remarkably gorgeous North Fork afternoon and thought about how miraculous it is that in spite of cause and effect, happiness vs. apathy vs. discontent, etc. we can be stopped in our tracks by wonder that defies explanation. And I do believe that these unexpected bursts of wonder can effortlessly illuminate the spaces in between the heavy lifting we do each day. x.Y

  3. What does happiness “feel like” to you? To me? Are we even sure what feeling we’re trying to feel? Yesterday on my walk, I heard birdsong from a bird I didn’t know. The bird sang relentlessly, and seemed to be following me. I felt something shift inside me . . . I felt lighter . . . what is this I wondered? Now thanks to your comments I’m calling that shift “happiness” 🙂 Vivian

    • Excellent question, Vivian, and one that has helped me tune in to how I define happiness and the need to be as present as possible in my own life to recognize its presence. I’ve found that my definition is far from stagnant. It shifts and often {gratefully!} broadens. And like the experience you shared, I’m often pulled into recognizing and naming happiness by unexpected wake-up calls from nature.

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