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"Its not all that bad" September 26, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, life, videos.
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I was listening to this talk today from Prof. Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”. His main idea was that even given our marvelous ability ( compared to other forms of life ) to simulate situations, our assessment of what makes us happy is not quite correct – infact most of get it wrong most of the time.

As I was listening to the talk I was reminded of an article I came across in the NYTimes a few months ago – titled “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness” – a rather long article that I bookmarked but never managed to read. (and havent yet ! ). Nevertheless, I quote here, for the benefit of those who hate to click through links for the fear of getting lost :), the first paragraph from the above article that quite summarizes something I am already struggling to describe.

If Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong. That is to say, if Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine. You are wrong to believe that a new kitchen will make you happy for as long as you imagine. You are wrong to think that you will be more unhappy with a big single setback (a broken wrist, a broken heart) than with a lesser chronic one (a trick knee, a tense marriage). You are wrong to assume that job failure will be crushing. You are wrong to expect that a death in the family will leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever. You are even wrong to reckon that a cheeseburger you order in a restaurant — this week, next week, a year from now, it doesn’t really matter when — will definitely hit the spot. That’s because when it comes to predicting exactly how you will feel in the future, you are most likely wrong.

I tend to agree and am sure most people have examples they can relate to. Another day in leisure maybe I will relate a few examples.

Anyway, Dan closes his talk from this amazingly insightful quote from Adam Smith – father of modern capitalism – who lived, well, 225 years ago !

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

Taken out of context (like it has been but for the rest of the post !) , the above quote actually
sounds rather Marxist! So much for being the father of capitalism 🙂

While I could never quite be articulate as above, but these words remind me of instances where such arguments did come up. The topic – why the ‘completely illogical’ concept of arranged marriages have such high success rates. People who support it say – “Its not all the bad !”. There you go, that sounds like Dan !

Yes, if you think about it, its the context in which these customs grew – these are evolutionary phenomenon much like religion although on a much shorter ( and recent ) time scale compared to evolution of species itself. And while this might seem as a defence of the idea of arranged marriages, let me say leave you with a quote due to an anonymous (and really smart) philosopher/scientist – “Description is not prescription.Explanation is not exculpation”.

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