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?