Monday, June 19, 2006

A return to happiness

I haven't blogged about happiness research lately, so here's some interesting stuff from the Stumbling on Happiness (a book I really need to get around to reading) blog. Mostly, the blog consists of three columns Professor Gilbert has recently written.

One on why parents think their kids make them happy when most empirical work shows that kids make parents unhappier on average:
Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away. When the popular press invented a malady called “empty-nest syndrome,” it failed to mention that its primary symptom is a marked increase in smiling.

Psychologists have measured how people feel as they go about their daily activities, and have found that people are less happy when they are interacting with their children than when they are eating, exercising, shopping or watching television. Indeed, an act of parenting makes most people about as happy as an act of housework. Economists have modeled the impact of many variables on people’s overall happiness and have consistently found that children have only a small impact. A small negative impact.

Another on variety (which returns to some of our earlier discussions):
I moved to Massachusetts from Texas about a decade ago, and the New Englanders who ask me this question are surprised to learn that anyone actually eats raw jalapenos, and much less for breakfast. But what surprises them most isn’t what I eat, but that I eat the same thing every Sunday. Jalapenos may be the spice of Texas, but don’t I know that variety is the spice of life?

Of course I do. But I also know that variety has costs. First, variety requires choice and choice requires time, and I’d rather spend my time writing a book or tickling my granddaughter than deciding what to eat every Sunday morning. I eat the same breakfast every Sunday for the same reason that I own 15 pairs of cargo pants in just two colors. We should only want variety among things that we enjoy thinking about, and I just don’t get much pleasure out of thinking about my breakfast or my trousers.

The final column discusses biases:
And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and decisions, they overestimate its influence on others.

In light of our long discussions of belief formation and differences in beliefs across people, I particularly liked this:

...By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.

Also, here is Professor Gilbert on the psychology of probability estimation (not from his blog). I've always found it interesting how willing people are to flip out over low-probability events. Local news is basically devoted to this topic, "Your bedsheets are going to kill you. Find out how at 11." (I loved a SNL spoof of local news (with Jerry Seinfeld) which was just a series of teasers about how common items or activities were going to kill you.)

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