Over the last decade, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has become a prominent voice in the public sphere. His 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness, translated in over 30 languages, became an international bestseller, triggering a slew of invitations—to give a TED Talk, host the PBS series This Emotional Life, and write for The New York Times and other publications. Gilbert spoke with me about his untraditional path to psychology, how psychology affects (and is affected by) other academic fields, and why the study of happiness is critical for public policy.
How did you first get into psychology?
My history is pretty different from the history of most professors. I was a high school dropout. I dropped out and became a science fiction writer. After being out of school for a few years, I went to a local community college to take a writing course, but it was closed. It was a long bus ride and I had an opening in my weekly schedule, so I asked the woman at the community college what else was open—and she told me there was a psychology class. It had never occurred to me to study psychology. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it had to do with human beings and their behavior. As a writer, that was my interest, too. So I signed up. That was the first domino, and the rest just fell in line.
A lot of students, like you, have their first exposure to psychology in college. Should psychology be taught earlier?
I think it’s the single most indispensable thing people can learn. Every professor loves their subject, and I love many subjects other than psychology, but psychology is unique. Psychology, unlike chemistry, unlike algebra, unlike literature, is an owner’s manual for your own mind. It’s a guide to life. What could be more important than grounding young people in the scientific information that they need to live happy, healthy, productive lives? To have good relationships? I can’t imagine a course that’s more important to teach as early as possible. And yet, it is not offered in all high schools, and I suspect it’s required in very few.
Why do you think that is?
My guess is that when most people hear the word “psychology,” they think of a person lying on a couch talking about their mother. There’s a part of psychology called clinical psychology, which has to do with helping people who are having problems. But that’s just a piece of psychology. And the other pieces are, by and large, experimental sciences that are studying every aspect of human behavior from the neuron to the neighborhood. Psychology as an experimental science is really just a century old. It can’t really compete with algebra and Plato in that sense. Its history is much shorter.
How did you first become interested in studying happiness?
I can trace it to a lunch I had with a colleague. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while. I asked how things were going in his life and heard a litany of woes. A breakup with a girlfriend, illness in his family, et cetera. He asked the same question of me, and I also recited a litany of woes. My advisor had died, my best friend and I had a falling out, my teenage son was doing what teenagers do—only worse—and the list went on. Then we looked at each other and said, “So how are you doing?” And we both said, “Gee, I’m doing okay.” That really surprised us. A year earlier, if you’d asked us how we’d be doing if these events had unfolded, we would have both said we’d be devastated. But neither of us was devastated. He turned to me and said, “I wonder if we’re the only people who can’t predict how we’ll feel when bad things happen?” I thought it was a great question. I assumed I could go back to my office after lunch and get on the PsychInfo database and find the answer. I was stunned to find, as far as I could see at the time, that no one in my field had asked this question in a rigorous way. That was an invitation.
So how did you go about studying it?
What I became interested in was something we came to call affective forecasting—how and how well people can look into the future and figure out how they’ll feel and how long they’ll feel that way. One of the primary reasons why the human brain has evolved to look so far into the future is so that we can take actions in the present that will bring us to a better future rather than a worse one. But what does “better” mean? For human beings, “better” almost always means more happiness. More well-being, more contentment. What are decisions for? What are we aiming for when we make decisions? At one level, you may say, “I’m looking for a better job, a better house, a new car,” but if you ask what all these things have in common, all of them, I think, are meant to increase or at least maintain your happiness. So if you’re interested in decisions and how people think about the future, you very quickly find yourself studying of happiness. That’s the future into which people are trying to go.
How far back does studying happiness go?
The study of emotions is as old as psychology itself, even older. Darwin wrote a wonderful book on emotions. The concentrated study of happiness, in particular, is about 20 or 30 years old. It has picked up a great amount of steam in the last 15 years. Not only psychologists, but economists and neuroscientists have gotten quite interested in it. And now governments and policymakers and businesses are interested in it too. I think the problem with the word “happiness” is that it sounds fluffy. It sounds like something trivial that we shouldn’t be concerned with. But just set aside the word and think about what the word signifies. You quickly realize that not only should we be concerned with the study of happiness, but that it’s impossible to be concerned with anything else. Pascal says: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception … This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
How could the goal of all human behavior be a trivial thing?
Philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein says that philosophy doesn’t have enough public intellectuals. What about psychology?
I think that psychology does not suffer the same fate as philosophy. We do have public intellectuals. Steven Pinker is an excellent example, maybe the greatest one I know, but there are a lot of psychologists in the public forum. The New York Times almost weekly features something by one of my colleagues. So we’re doing a very good job of letting people know that we’re here and we have something to say. If you look at the nonfiction bestseller list in The New York Times, at almost any point, two-thirds or more of the books are about psychology. The book might be written by Steve Pinker, or me, or Malcolm Gladwell. And they are at different levels. But they’re about the science of human behavior. That tells you something important; that people are hungry for the very things that we are studying. Answers to the deep and enduring questions about their lives. And they don’t want to get them from people who are flapping their gums and speculating. They want answers from the same place they get answers about what makes butterflies migrate or what causes global warming; they want scientists to tell them the facts of the matter. I think it’s a really great thing. For me the big surprise about publishing Stumbling on Happiness was the way it opened doors to speak to a much larger audience. I was asked to give a TED Talk, and later I co-wrote and hosted a PBS series, among other things. I love doing this. For me, it’s all just teaching. If I write a scientific article, I want to teach my colleagues about something that occurred in my lab. If I write for The New York Times or do something for PBS, I want to teach larger audiences about the things I think are interesting. For me, it’s just one mission.
Now that we know more about the factors that play into human happiness, are we becoming happier?
Yes, I think so. At the micro level, it’s helping people lead healthier, more productive lives. If you turn to the scientific literature today, by the end of the day could probably find three things you could do that would probably make you happier if you do them reliably and religiously. A lovely book just came out by Dan Harris, the anchor for Nightline, called 10% Happier. Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but it is. If you could lose ten percent of your body weight or gain ten percent IQ, that’s a lot. So at the micro level, there are things we now know people can do to make themselves happier.
But some of the most important changes are at the macro level, at the level of policy. What are public policies for? What are we aiming for when we try to decide how many parks we should have versus how many highways? Or how we should redistribute tax dollars? We’re obviously aiming to increase the overall happiness of the population. What’s stunning is, until now, no one sought to measure whether the public policies are doing what they’re meant to do. So I think this is one of the big contributions, particularly of economists who are interested in happiness—to get policymakers to take seriously the measurement of happiness as the end goal of all public policy. That’s why I think psychology, and in particular, behavioral economics, are starting to have a big impact.
How does psychology intersect with other disciplines?
Psychology fits right at the intersection of the social and the natural sciences. So in our department we have people studying single cells in the retina, and we have people studying how organizations work. In the same department. One of them is clearly a social scientist and one is clearly a natural scientist. Psychology is at the nexus of those two disciplines. As a result, it butts up against more neighbors than most disciplines do. Psychology is being affected by and having an effect on biology. Probably the biggest revolution in the last 15 to 20 years in our discipline is the emergence of neuroimaging to allow us to see the living brain in action. We’ve also seen the rise of behavioral economics, a new discipline where psychology rubs up against classical microeconomics. We see psychology rubbing up against sociology, and also in a variety of professions. I get articles on affective forecasting sent to me all the time that are published in medical journals or law journals. So psychology is having a big impact on almost all of its neighbors.
Why do you think the study of happiness has become such a popular subject recently?
I certainly think there’s more room in modern society for the study of happiness than there was, say 100 or 500 years ago. For ancestors whose lives were “nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes, there probably wasn’t a lot of time to think about what would create fulfillment. People were getting up in the morning and basically trying not to die. We now live in a world of relative luxury. It can seem like a world in crisis, but over the last century, things have been getting better and better. One of the things that’s happened is that many human beings in the Western Hemisphere have the luxury of asking: What would make my life full? What would make my life better than just okay? What would it be to be more than just healthy and wealthy? As a result, we have populations of people who are seeking answers for the first time at exactly the moment when the old sources of answers are losing their cache. Once upon a time, we got all of our information about how we should live a life from our parents and grandparents. Or from religious leaders. All of these sources of information about how to live a life have diminished authority in the modern world. So just at the moment in time when people have the luxury of asking these questions, they also have fewer places to get their answers. They’re turning to science—which, I think, is a fantastic turn of events.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.