Interviews November 2008

Song of My Selves

Psychologist Paul Bloom reflects on happiness, desire, memory, and the chaotic community that lives inside every human mind

I recently heard a TED Talks podcast by the psychologist Dan Gilbert on this subject. He says that we start out trying to find happiness in specific ways, but when things don’t go as we’d planned, we “synthesize” happiness by changing the way we think about our circumstances. He gives examples of people who spend 20 years in prison—or lose millions of dollars—and come out saying, “That was the most fortunate thing that could have ever happened to me.”

The way Dan puts it—and his work is just excellent—is that we try to forecast whether or not something will make us happy, but we’re wrong, we’re mistaken. He gives all these examples of how we think we’re going to like something, and we think we liked it afterwards, but we actually don’t like it all.

His most provocative example is having children. He says this gets him into all sorts of trouble. People get enraged and walk out of his talks. But the literature is pretty clear that if you beep people on a beeper while they’re with their children and ask them how they’re feeling, they’re not so happy. But if you ask people what they like most in life, they say they love their kids—their kids are the great joys of their lives. The way Dan puts it is that we’re wrong. Kids really make us unhappy, but we think they make this happy. He gives different reasons why, but one reason is that we’re fooled by the media. We’re suckered in by this legend.

I actually don’t think that’s the right way to look at things. It’s possible for kids to be a pain in the ass day to day and to be a huge joy in a broader sense. You may experience that joy only when you ask, “What kind of person am I? What kind of life am I living?” That’s when you get joy. But in daily life, you’re jamming your kids into the car and changing diapers and looking for a McDonald’s and getting yelled at, and then they poke you, and you’re miserable. But when you think about the experience of having them, you’re happy.

My disagreement with Dan is that Dan would say, “Somebody’s got to be wrong there.” But the way I see it, it’s no different than saying to a friend, “I like going to Vegas and you don’t.” It’s just two selves having a difference of opinion.

I wanted to ask you about that research on children. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that getting married is one of the few things that’s actually been shown to make people happier. Since we had that discussion, I have gotten married…

Mazel tov!

Thanks! I’ve actually thought a lot about what you said, because there’s been a very obvious increase in my day-to-day happiness. But it’s a bit disconcerting to think that all of that happiness will start to evaporate once I have children.

Dan has a scary graph in his book Stumbling Upon Happiness. When you get married, he shows happiness shooting up—it skyrockets, and it’s all wonderful. Then you have kids, and it starts creeping down and down and down and down. And when they leave the house, you’re back to your glorious happiness. That, to me, makes no sense at all. It fits very badly with my own life experience.

Yes, I remember how you quoted your little boy Max in your last article. You seemed to be a very proud, happy father.

That’s right. I have two kids, Max and Zach, and I’m very close with both of them. They’re the great joys of my life. But you know, Dan might be right. Day to day, kids are difficult to deal with. But I think they add a richness to your life that’s incomparable.

The point is that it depends who you ask. The beeper studies ask one self. But when you’re talking to me about it now, you’re talking to another self. I think that’s a nice way to get around some paradoxes. It might seem like we’re wrong about the most fundamental aspects of our lives. But I don’t think we’re wrong at all. We just get different responses when we ask different selves.

That’s reassuring. Now what about this notion of escapism? According to your article, when we watch TV, we leave our everyday paradigm and actually become Tony Soprano. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote something similar in The Atlantic about going to a lab at UCLA and having researchers study his brain. When he looked at a photo of Bruce Springsteen, the researchers told him that he was playing the role of Bruce, neurologically pretending to play guitar and sing like him. Is that what happens whenever we get deeply absorbed in an experience?

I do think that when we’re interacting with people, particularly when we’re taking their view, we simulate what’s going on with them. And there’s actually some interesting neuroscientific evidence for that. But it’s a very old observation. Adam Smith has this wonderful quote where he says that when we see somebody being struck, we feel as if we were them. If you see somebody being hit in a movie, you might wince. We do take on the perspectives of others. Otherwise, fiction would be impossible. The characters on The Sopranos are awful people. You wouldn’t hope that Tony would be successful in killing someone if you weren’t looking at the world through his eyes, shifting your goals and desires accordingly.

Does that kind of exposure—whether we get it through art or just through living—create more selves? Does a child come into the world with fewer, more streamlined selves and an adult have more numerous selves?

Yes, I would think so. In all sorts of ways, I’d think we multiply selves as we grow older. We have different situational selves, different desires that clash. These desires grow their own personalities and motivations. Also, as we’re exposed to more fiction, we multiply perspectives. We can playact in all sorts of ways. Even young children get joy out of pretending, creating imaginary friends. But as we get older, we get more and more multitudinous. 

Speaking of multitudes, your piece includes one of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But I wanted to ask you about an earlier section in “Song of Myself” where he describes a sort of über-self that isn’t part of the multitudes. He lists various perceptions and relationships he has in his everyday life, and then he says, “But they are not the Me myself. / Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, / Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary, / Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest, / Looks with its side-curved head, curious what will come next, / Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”

That’s a lovely quote.

Is there anything in your research that indicates a larger self above the fray, watching the whole pageant of the other selves?

Most people believe that there’s a self that’s in charge. And in some way, that self is identified with the will, with self-control. Suppose we’re multiple selves. Who should win? The standard view, which I think is 95 percent right, is the one that’s rational, the one that contemplates, that sees a therapist and so on, and not the petty, impulsive self. The adult and not the child. But sometimes our more emotional, less verbal, younger self should get a lot of say. It’s not hard to find cases where the rational, contemplative self goes horribly wrong.

Right. In your piece, you give the example of the Nazis.

The Nazis were not crazy, stupid people. They weren’t in some sort of emotional frenzy. They were contemplative, thoughtful people who read, talked, and had grand ideas. They were in some way the model for this über-Self. They were just rotten. In general, I think rationality is wonderful. But there are cases where it can lead you astray and your gut feeling is what you should be listening to.

But I’m not sure Whitman is talking about a rational self. You might remember that I grew up with Transcendental Meditation and a somewhat eastern worldview. It makes sense to me that there are all these different rationalizations and desires that come to the forefront, but that none of these is the ultimate reality. That’s what I get from this Whitman passage. It’s as if there’s a deeper part of him that’s a silent witness to all his selves, like an affectionate parent sitting back and watching his children playing.

The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about.

Well, whether you intended it or not, your article does seem to fit in very well with that paradigm—especially if there’s a big-S “Self” that contains all those multitudes.

I guess so. This whole notion of multiple selves is still very strange and alien to me. It was fun to explore it in a magazine article, to see where I could take the idea. But if I picked up this piece right now as a reader, I don’t know whether I’d be convinced. It must have been a different self who wrote it.

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