Monday, April 28, 2008

How can we choose between alternative futures?

I ended my last post (here) wondering how I would feel after I had finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling on happiness”. In particular, I wondered how I would feel if the author managed to persuade me that I was wrong in believing that individual humans have the capacity to look forward in order to choose the best future for themselves.

I need not have been concerned. This is a lively and interesting book, but it seems to me that Gilbert has not succeeded in demonstrating that we are unable to shop around among the different fates that might befall us. Perhaps he mis-stated his intention in the first chapter. His book certainly demonstrates that we experience illusions of foresight – more illusions than I had imagined we experience. It concludes, however, with a recommendation about how we can make more accurate predictions about our emotional futures. The author suggests that we can do this by observing how happy other people are in different circumstances rather than by trying to imagine how happy we would be in those circumstances in the future.

Gilbert acknowledges that because everyone is unique the emotional experience of others is an imperfect guide to how we might feel. He suggests, however, that we tend to make greater errors when we reject the lessens that the emotional experience of others has to teach us and rely exclusively on our attempts to imagine how we might feel in those circumstances.

It seems to me that by the end of his book Daniel Gilbert is acknowledging that humans do have the capacity to look forward in order to choose a better future for themselves and can improve their use of this capacity. In effect, this view is consistent with, economist, Gary Becker’s view (“Accounting for Tastes”, 1996, p11) that the capacity that people have to anticipate future utilities can be improved by developing “imagination capital”.

Ironically, Daniel Gilbert implies that if individuals were more effective in pursuing their own happiness this could have adverse consequences. The example he gives is having children. There is a common belief that children bring happiness, even though people who are married without children report being happier, on average, than those with children living at home. Gilbert suggests that “the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it” (p244). He notes that the opposite belief would actually be self-terminating because people acting upon it would fail to reproduce.

It seems to me that this apparent conflict between pursuit of happiness and human flourishing stems from either too narrow a definition of happiness or failure to recognise that people pursue some objectives that are not encompassed by a narrow definition of happiness. Gilbert wants to reserve ‘happiness’ to refer to “that class of subjective emotional experiences that are vaguely described as enjoyable or pleasurable” (p 41). This corresponds to what Daniel Nettle describes as Level 1 happiness (“Happiness”, 2005). He suggests that when people say they are happy with their lives they are reporting Level 2 happiness: “They mean that upon reflection on the balance sheet of pleasures and pains, they feel the balance to be reasonably positive over the long term” (p17). Level 3 happiness involves “making judgements about what the good life consists of and the extent to which one’s life fulfils it” (p23). Thus the belief that “children are a source of happiness” may be linked to individuals’ conscious perceptions of the “good life” rather than just “part of our cultural wisdom”.

Is Daniel Gilbert’s book relevant to anyone who wants to pursue the “good life’ rather than Gilbert’s narrower perception of happiness? Yes. It seems to me that anyone seeking to choose between alternative futures could benefit from greater knowledge of the illusions of foresight discussed in this book.

No comments: