20. The Good Life: Happiness

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20. The Good Life: Happiness

20. The Good Life: Happiness


This lecture will be a some
slightly shorter lecture than usual.
What I first want to do is finish off the discussion of
clinical psychology from last lecture and then have a little
brief discussion about some very interesting research on
happiness. We talked–we ended last
lecture with a discussion of some early–some of the history
of treating mental illness and we saw that it was rather
gruesome, unsuccessful, and arbitrary.
For the most part, we do better now,
and Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema reviewed some of
the therapies with focus on therapies for depression.
The textbook talks in detail about therapies for different
disorders including schizophrenia,
anxiety disorders, and so on.
The question which everyone is interested in is,
“Does therapy work?” And this proves to be
surprisingly difficult to tell. Part of the problem is if you
ask people who go into therapy, “Did you get better after
therapy?” for the most part they’ll tell
you that they did but the problem is this could be a
statistical byproduct of what’s called “regression to the mean.”
So, the idea looks like this. This line plots how you feel
from great through okay to awful and it goes up and down and in
fact in everyday life you’re going to–some days are going to
be average, some days will be better than
average, some days worse than average.
You could plot your semester. You could do a plot every
morning when you wake up or every night before you go to
bed. You could put yourself on a
graph and it’ll come out to some sort of wiggly thing.
Statistically, if something is above average
or below average it’s going to trend towards average just
because that’s a statistical inevitability.
When do people go to therapy? Well, they go to therapy when
they’re feeling really crappy. They go to therapy when they’re
feeling unusually bad. Even if therapy then has no
effect at all, if it’s true that people’s
moods tend to go up and down after you feel really bad you’ll
probably improve rather than get worse.
And so this could happen–the normal flow could happen just
even if therapy has no effect at all.
And so, simply getting better after therapy doesn’t tell you
anything. On the worst day of your life
you could do naked jumping jacks on the roof of your college for
ten minutes. I guarantee you your next day
would probably be better. That doesn’t mean naked jumping
jacks are helping you. Rather, it just means that the
day after the worst day of your life usually is not as bad as
the worst day of your life. It can get worse,
but usually it just trends to average.
What you’ve got to do then is you have to take people at the
same point who would get treatment and compare them to
people who do not get treatment or what we call a “control
group.” And this is an example of this.
So, this is for people who are depressed.
This is statistically equal. They start off pre-therapy.
They all go for therapy but because in this example there’s
a limited number of therapists, some of them are put on a
waiting list and others get a therapist.
It’s arbitrary. It’s random,
which is–which–making it a very good experiment.
And in this example, you could see those who
received cognitive training were better off.
They had lower depression scores than those that received
no therapy at all. In general, in fact,
we could make some general conclusions about therapy.
Therapy by and large works. People in treatment do better
than those who are not in treatment and that’s not merely
because they choose to go into treatment.
Rather, it’s people who are in desperate straits who seek out
help. Those who get help are likely
to be better off than those that don’t get help.
Therapy for the most part works. We can’t cure a lot of things
but we can often make them better.
Different sorts of therapy works best for different
problems, and again, depression proves to be an
illustrative example. If you have everyday unipolar
depression, that is, you feel very sad and you show
other symptoms associated with depression,
an excellent treatment for you is some combination of cognitive
behavioral therapy and possibly antidepressant medications like
SSRIs. If you have bipolar depression,
the cognitive behavioral therapy is useless but
medication is your best bet and so on for all of the other
disorders. Each disorder has some sort of
optimal mode of treatment. If you suffer from an anxiety
disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy can be of help.
If you’re a schizophrenic it’s probably not going to be of much
help at all. And so, different disorders go
best with different sorts of therapies.
Finally, some therapists do better than others.
So, for reasons that nobody fully understands,
there are good therapists and then there are better therapists
and there are bad therapists. And there’s great individual
differences in the efficacy of an individual therapist.
Finally, putting aside then the difference in therapies and the
difference in therapists, does it make sense to say that
therapy, in general, works?
And the answer is “yes.” And this is in large part
because of what clinical psychologists describe as
“nonspecific factors.” And what this just is a term
meaning properties that all therapies, or virtually all
therapies, share and I’ve listed two of them here.
One of them is “support.” No matter what sort of therapy
you’re getting involved in, be it a psychoanalyst or a
behavior therapist or a cognitive therapist or a
psychiatrist who prescribes you medication or someone who makes
you go through different exercises or keeps a journal,
you have some sense of support, some acceptance,
empathy, encouragement, guidance.
You have a human touch. You have somebody who for at
least some of the day really cares about you and wants you to
be better and that could make a huge difference.
Also you have hope. Typically, there’s an
enthusiasm behind therapy. There’s a sense that this might
really make me get better and that hope could be powerful.
Sometimes this is viewed under the rubric of a placebo effect,
which is that maybe the benefits you get from therapy
aren’t due to anything in particular the therapist does to
you but rather to the belief that things are going to get
better, something is being done that
will help you. And this belief can be a
self-fulfilling prophecy. “Placebo effect” is often used
sort of in a dismissive way, “Oh, it’s just a placebo,”
but placebos can be powerful and even if it’s useless from a
real point–from a psychological theory point of view,
even if the therapist runs around and dances while you –
I have dancing on my mind now – while you sit in the chair
and watch him dance; if you believe the dancing is
going to make you better, it may well help.
Okay. That’s all I’m going to say
about therapy. Any questions about therapy?
Yes. Student: [inaudible]
Professor Paul Bloom: Fair enough.
The question is the assumption of regression to the mean seems
sort of arbitrary because it depends what the mean is.
Always after the fact you can apply an average to it and say,
“Look. This is the average,” but how
do you know beforehand? It’s a good point.
When you talk about regression to the mean, it adopts certain
assumptions. The assumption is there really
is an average throughout much of your life and things go up and
down within that average and for the most part that’s true for
things like mood. For most of us,
we have an average mood and we have bad days and we have good
days. It’s always possible that you
have a bad day and then from there on in it’s just going to
go down and down and down but statistically the best bet is if
you have a bad day you’re going to go back up to the mean.
It’s–in some way you don’t even have to see it from a
clinical point of view. You could map it out yourself.
Map out your moods and the days where you’re most depressed
sooner or later you’re likely to go up.
Similarly, on the happiest day of your life odds are the next
day you’re going to go down and there’s nothing magical about
this. This is just because under the
assumption that there really is an average in–built into
one–each of us. If human behavior was
arbitrary, it would be like a random walk but it’s not.
We seem to have sort of set points and aspects of us that we
fall back to that make the idea of a mean a psychologically
plausible claim. Yes.
Student: [inaudible] Professor Paul Bloom:
That’s a good question. Yes.
In that study it’s a perfectly good hypothesis that the sort of
anxiety of being told, “I see you’ve come here for
help. We can’t give it to you.
Congratulations. You’re a control group”
[laughs] causes anxiety.
In other studies the control group doesn’t know they are the
control group. So sometimes you can do an
intervention where you say, “Congratulations,
everybody in Intro Psych who did very low on the depression
inventory,” which many of you filled out,
“We’re going to do something to you.”
And then the rest of the people don’t even know that they
haven’t been chosen. So, you’re right.
It’s a perfectly good point. Knowing you’re not chosen could
have a deleterious effect and the way to respond to that is
you have other studies that don’t use that same method. Okay.
I want to end with happiness and it’s a strange thing to talk
about in psychology. Most of psychology focuses on
human misery, most of clinical psychology.
There is the psychology we spoke about through most of the
semester on vision and language and social behavior,
but typically when people think about interventions what they
think about is people having problems and then we figure out
how to make them better. They are schizophrenic,
they are depressed or anxious, they are just not making it in
life, and psychologists try to figure
out how to make things improve. And in fact,
a lot of the information I gave you at the beginning of the
lecture last class where I reviewed all of the disorders is
in this wonderful book called DSM-IV,
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
If you ever really want to get–If you really [laughs]
want to diagnose people and come to have a belief in your
own mental instability, browsing through that book is a
treat. Everything that can go wrong in
mental life from Aspergers syndrome to fetishes to paranoid
schizophrenia is all in that wonderful book and–but a lot of
psychologists have been disturbed by the focus of our
field on taking bad people, people who are broken,
people who are sad, and bringing them up to normal.
And they’ve started to ask can psychology give us any insight
into human flourishing, how to take people who
are–who–how to study people who are psychological successes,
how to take people who are psychologically okay and make
them better. And this is the movement known
as “positive psychology.” And it has its own handbook
now, The Handbook of Positive Psychology, listing
psychological strengths, listing virtues,
ways–what psychology tells us about how we can be at our best.
Some of this work in positive psychology is,
in my mind, real crap. A lot of it is some combination
of new age banalities by people who are striving to get more
grant funds and end up on Time magazine.
On the other hand–and so, some of it is really bad.
You could imagine this attracts every self-help huckster you
could imagine. On the other hand,
a lot of this work is quite neat, quite interesting and
quite promising. And what I want to do is tell
you what I think is the most interesting research from this
movement concerning happiness. Now, there are a lot of good
books on this and I’m going to recommend books,
which I haven’t been doing much in this class.
Marty Seligman is the pioneer of positive psychology and he’s
written an excellent book called Authentic Happiness.
Jonathan Haidt is a brilliant young scholar who’s done–also
done a lot of work on disgust and morality.
He did the “sex with dead chicken study” we discussed
earlier. This is one of my favorite
books by – Happiness by Nettle, because it’s smart,
it’s beautifully written and it’s extremely short.
And Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness,
is a very, very funny book and very smart book and is now on
The New York Times bestseller list.
So, there’s no shortage of books on happiness.
So, the starting point is–And a lot of research on happiness
starts with a basic question: How happy are you?
And we’re psychologists so tell us on a scale of one to ten
where five is average, ten is super-duper.
The most common answers, interestingly enough,
are high. They’re seven or eight.
How many people in this room would give themselves a seven or
an eight? Okay.
How many a nine or a ten? All right.
How many a ten? Good, good, maxed out on
happiness. It turns out that most people
think that they’re pretty happy. There’s a Lake Wobegon effect
with happiness. Most people think they’re very
happy. In fact, most people think
they’re happier than most people, which shouldn’t really
happen. This question,
“How happy are you from one to ten?”
has been asked all over the world.
So–and it turns out there are slight differences depending on
how old you are. There are slight differences
depending on your place within a country, California versus New
York. There are slight,
subtle differences between men and women at different points,
somewhat paradoxically. Although women are more
vulnerable to depression than men, still on average women are
slightly happier than men. The country-by-country data is
quite interesting. In one study they looked at
forty-two countries. The happiest–well, let me see.
The happiest people on earth–well, first,
no country believed they were unhappy, the people in no
country of these forty-two countries.
I mean, you’re thinking there are some really bad countries to
live in and I don’t know if they were tested but of these
forty-two everybody seemed–said they were above average.
The happiest people on earth? The Swiss.
[laughter] They think–they’re just
like–they’re just so happy. I was talking to people about
this last night and they suggested chocolate.
[laughter] The saddest people on this–on
the sample? The sad Bulgarians.
[laughter] You are wondering what about
Americans. Americans are actually pretty
happy, 7.71. We are a happy country full of
happy people. Now, I’m going to talk about a
lot of research that’s based on the data you get when you ask
people how happy they are from a scale of one to ten.
But I’m going to be honest and tell you there are reasons to be
cautious about these numbers. And the reasons come from a
couple of experiments. In one experiment they asked
people inside a psychology department where there was a
photocopy machine. They went up to people–the
people were going up to the photocopy machine to make copies
and when they were done making copies they asked them,
“How happy are you with your entire life?”
There were two groups. Group A, they put a dime on top
of the photocopy machine so people walked over there,
“I’m going to [inaudible]. Oh, a dime.
Well.” The other group, no dime.
It turned out that when asked “How good is your whole life?”
[laughter] group A reported [laughter]
greater life satisfaction overall in their entire lives.
Another study asked people how happy you are with your whole
life on sunny days like today and people said they were
happier on sunny days than rainy days.
What’s interesting is you could make this effect go away if you
ask immediately before “How’s the weather?”
These were done by phone interviews.
And logically, what seems to go on is that if
you’re asked how’s the weather, you’re “Oh, it’s really sunny
outside,” and then when people are asked “How happy are you
with your whole life?” people then say, “Oh, okay.
I’m going to take into account the sunny-ness when I give my
answer. Okay.
So, what is happiness? What are people rating when
they’re answering these sort of questions?
And this is an extraordinarily difficult question and one could
devote a seminar to discussing it,
but one simple answer from an evolutionary point of view is
that happiness–forget about “what is happiness?”
Ask “what’s happiness for?” just like we’ve asked what
language is for, or what laughter is for,
or what hunger or lust is for. What’s happiness for?
And one answer is happiness is a goal state that we’ve evolved
to pursue. It’s a signal that our needs
have been satisfied. Happiness is the carrot we’re
running towards that makes us take care of our lives.
We want to be happy. An example of this is food.
You’re not very happy if you’re starving.
You want to be satiated, you want to be satisfied,
so you seek out food to fill your belly.
Once you’ve done it, you’re happy.
Steven Pinker summarizes the keys to happiness in a nicely
evocative passage: “We are happier when we are
healthy, well-fed, comfortable,
safe, prosperous, knowledgeable,
respected, non-celibate, in love.”
How many people here have got all of those right now?
Oh, come on. [laughter] Some people.
Oddly enough, the person who said he was a
ten didn’t–does not raise his hand.
Okay. [laughter]
So this is- And this makes out–you get all your needs
satisfied, your belly is full,
people love you, you’re getting sex regularly,
you’re smart, you’re rich,
you’re happy, but as Pinker points out it’s
not that simple. Here’s the problem. You, Americans in this century,
you are now healthier, better fed and so on than just
about anyone in history but you’re not happier.
That’s the puzzle. In particular,
these studies asking about happiness have been around for a
long time. People in the 1950s did not
make as much money, did not eat as well,
did not live as long, suffered from more diseases,
were more vulnerable in a hundred different ways,
yet they were–are as happy as you are now.
You are as happy as your parents were and they were as
happy as your grandparents. Moreover, in poor countries
people don’t have the shelter, the knowledge,
the protection, the safety, yet,
for the most part, there’s not a huge effect on
how rich a country is and–on how happy the people are.
Furthermore, there are great individual
differences in happiness among people whose basic needs are
met. For the most part,
everybody in this room is fed and sheltered and safe.
Some of you are prosperous, some of you are knowledgeable,
a couple non-celibate, and– [laughter]
but even among that group you vary in your happiness,
and that’s kind of a puzzle. And to explain the puzzle we
need to talk about a few surprising facts about happiness
and I’ll present three of them. The first is happiness doesn’t
change as much as you think. In particular,
happiness is not as sensitive to what happens–your happiness
is not as sensitive to what happens in your environment as
you might think it is. Part of the reason for this is
that there appears to be a strong heritable basis for
happiness. So, just as we talked about the
domains of personality and intelligence,
there is some genetic determination,
not entirely but some, in how happy you are.
And some people talk in terms of a genetically determined set
point. So, you have a sort of natural
happiness level, maybe a range.
To put it in extreme form, some people are genetically
predisposed to be pretty sour, others to be pretty cheerful. Well, that can’t be it.
Identical twins are very similar in their happiness but,
as with everything else we’ve discussed, they’re not
identical. What about life events?
Wouldn’t life events change your happiness?
And here we’re entering one of the great discoveries of
happiness research. Think for a moment.
What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?
And then ask how much would it change your happiness.
Now, think for a moment. What’s the best thing that
could happen to you? And ask how much would it
change your happiness. And the research in happiness
suggests that your gut feelings are probably wrong.
And here’s a couple of case studies.
For many people a very bad thing that could happen to you
is to be paralyzed from the neck down in an accident.
It turns out obviously, common sense,
that when this happens it makes people very unhappy.
It makes them depressed, they think their life is over,
they feel terribly sad, but not for that long.
After about a year after being paralyzed from the neck down,
people’s happiness comes back up pretty much to where it was
before, suggesting that there’s a
temporary effect but not a permanent one.
Many people believe that winning many,
many millions of dollars in the lottery will make you happier
and it does. When you open up that winning
ticket and you say, “I won one hundred million
dollars,” you say, “Woo, hoo!”
You are honest to God very happy.
You’d say, “Hell, I’m a 10.5, I am very happy.”
A year later you are not as happy.
In fact, lottery winning may be a terrible case where
people–where it goes the reverse of what you expect.
What happens when you win a lot of money is it often wrenches
you away from your family, your work and your friends and
leads you to depression and sadness but even mundane events
that would make you happy–that you think would make you happy
don’t seem to last. In some research by Dan Gilbert
and others, they’ve asked young assistant professors who are
coming up for tenure, and tenure in a university
system is a good thing to get because it gives you lifetime
job security, “How happy would you feel if
you got tenure? How happy would you feel if you
didn’t get tenure?” Prior to the last election,
they asked people “How happy would you be if it was President
Bush? How happy would you be if it
was President Kerry?” And it turns out people
radically overestimated the effects of these things.
Having your favorite candidate win is not such a big deal.
Having your favorite candidate lose is not such a big deal
either. Getting tenure or not getting
tenure are really big when it happens.
Six months later and a year later your happiness doesn’t
seem to be affected. The purchase of consumer goods,
an Xbox 360, a nice flat screen TV,
those sorts of things make you very happy when you open up the
package and set it up but this happiness fades almost
immediately. The moral of–A lot of people
are shaking their heads. It’s true, not for me but–the
moral of a lot of this work is we think these things will have
big permanent and profound effects but they need not and
they often don’t. Why not?
Why do we overestimate their happiness?
And the technical term for this, by the way,
is “affective forecasting.” Again, this is Dan Gilbert’s
work and the idea is we are bad at affective forecasting.
That is, we are bad at predicting how happy or sad we
will be in the future based on what’s happening to us.
Why? Well, a couple of reasons.
One thing is there’s often a failure to appreciate the
day-to-day irrelevance of certain events.
So prior to the election–the election’s happening tomorrow
and I ask somebody who’s a diehard Democrat,
“How would you feel if Bush won?”
and the person said, “I’ll be miserable.
It’ll be a miserable four years afterwards.”
But what often isn’t appreciated here is that whether
or not Bush wins will make you sad or happy after it happens
but for the most of your day-to-day life you aren’t
thinking about who the president is.
I’d be very happy if I won a huge prize and I’d be “Whoa,
a huge prize,” the Nobel prize, a Guggenheim,
a MacArthur ‘Genius’ or I get them all in the same day.
[laughter] “What a day. I am really happy.”
But then a month later I’m there and I’ve still got my
regular insomnia and there’s nothing on TV and the plumber’s
not coming and my kids don’t respect me and I can’t–and the
fact that “Yeah, but I won the prize,” it
doesn’t matter. A lot of the things in life
that’ll make you really–that you think will make you really
happy don’t have this day-to-day effect.
Also, there is the logic of the set point.
And this comes to a terrible word: We adapt.
Right now I’m a guy without a Nobel prize.
I’m kind of used to it. If I got a Nobel prize I’d be a
guy with a Nobel prize. I’d be happy but then I’d kind
of get used to that too. And if I got a second one,
“whoa, two!” but then I’d just get used to
that too. You get used to things.
You get used to bad things. Now, I don’t want to overstate
this. There are some very interesting
exceptions. So for instance,
we don’t get used to noise. A lot of research suggests that
if your environment is noisy, they’re doing construction
around you, you can’t get used to it.
Your happiness drops and it doesn’t come back up.
Your system cannot habituate to continued noise.
We adapt to good things, winning the lottery,
winning a prize, getting an “A ” in a course.
We adapt, we get used to it, also with some surprising
exceptions. One of the big–one of the
other surprises from happiness research is the effects of
cosmetic surgery like breast enhancement and breast
reduction. One of the big surprises is it
makes people happier and then they stay happier.
And one explanation for this is how we look is very important.
It’s very important for how other people see us and how we
see ourselves, and you never get used to
looking in a certain way. So, if you look better it just
makes you happier all the time. So, there are these exceptions
but putting aside the exceptions, the problem of
adaptation is sometimes called “the hedonic treadmill” and the
idea is hedonic for happy. You keep on running but no
matter how fast you run you stay where you are,
you get used to it. Habituation is like you
put–you step into a very hot bath but you get used to it.
If it’s a cold bath you get used to it.
A difficult environment, an easy environment,
you get used to it. The story is often
illustrated–It’s often illustrated with a story from
the Bible in Ecclesiastes of a king and this king had it all.
He had gardens, parks, vineyards,
castles, slaves and concubines and they were both male and
female concubines. [laughter]
So, he had everything, right, but it didn’t make him
happy and here’s what he says: “I hated life.
All this vanity and a chasing after wind and there is nothing
to be gained under the sun.” Now, in these books I talked
about at the beginning these authors give advice on how to
deal with the hedonic treadmill. How do you deal with the fact
that everything you aspire to, once you get it you’ll be used
to it and it will lose its value?
Well, one answer is that possessions are not the key to
happiness. Possessions you very quickly
get used to. From there, there are two
alternatives. One is endless novelty.
So one guy – I forget his name – wrote a book and he
says, “Look. There’s the hedonic treadmill.
The trick is always do something different.
Next week have sex with somebody you’ve never had sex
before. Then climb Mount Everest.
You get bored with that, become an accountant.
Boring. Scuba diving.
Boring.” He had endless ideas,
and that’s a possibility. You never–you–if you keep
changing what you’re doing you’ll never get used to
anything and you’ll always be happy.
At least he says that. Then there’s the old guy
alternative. Step off the treadmill.
Give up–give up chasing the whole happiness thing and then
seek out more substantial goods that might actually not make you
happy in the simple sense of a quick fix of delight,
but substantial goods like friends and family and long-term
projects. So, the first moral of the
science of happiness is that your happiness is actually
rather fixed. It’s fixed in part genetically
and it’s fixed in part because what happens in your life you’ll
get used to, to a large extent. Are you raising your hand?
No. Oh, sorry.
The second one is happiness is relative.
So, there’s a lot of research on money, power and happiness,
and remember I did say before that it doesn’t matter whether
you come from a rich country or a poor country.
As long as your country–as long as you’re not starving to
death, it kind of doesn’t matter how rich your country is for how
happy you are. But that’s not the same as
saying it doesn’t matter how much money you make.
In fact, there’s a set point or a range but there is some effect
on your salary and on your job on your happiness.
And if you’re desperately poor, no matter where you are,
no matter who’s around you, you’re not going to be happy.
But beyond that your happiness depends on your relative
circumstance. And this is an old insight.
H.L. Mencken wrote,
“A wealthy man is one who earns a hundred dollars more than his
wife’s sister’s husband.” The idea is what matters isn’t
how much you make. What matters is how much you
make relative to the people around you.
And they’ve asked people this. “What would you rather?
Do you want to make seventy thousand dollars if everybody
else in your office is making sixty-five thousand or
seventy-five thousand dollars if everybody else is making eighty
thousand?” Does it matter how much money
you bring home or does it matter how much money you make relative
to other people? Well, they’re both factors but
relative salary–and in this example people prefer this.
They prefer to be making less if they’re making more than the
people around them. It turns out that there’s
research on British social servants and their happiness and
their health and the quality of their relationships and how they
love their lives doesn’t depend on how much money they make.
It depends on where they are relative to everybody else.
We are very status conscious primates and your role in a
hierarchy, your level in the hierarchy plays a–has a
significant effect on your level of happiness.
This is not really a secret. The opera star Maria Callas and
the English professor Stanley Fish had the same negotiating
strategy. When Fish got hired into his
department, according to urban legend at least,
he said, “I don’t want to talk salary.
I don’t have a particular number in mind.
I just want to get paid one hundred dollars more than
whoever is the top person in this department.”
And that’s a guy who knows about happiness.
He walks in and he states, “I’m paid more than everybody
else. I don’t care how much it is.
It’s just more.” [laughter]
And that’s relevant to happiness.
We’re now in a position to give some advice to the king,
summing up. First, going back again to Dr.
Nolen-Hoeksema’s lecture, I think the king is suffering
from mild unipolar depression so we should–he should get some
SSRIs and cognitive behavior therapy.
I think he needs to move his castle to a quiet part of the
kingdom. The noise of a busy castle is
stressful. And he needs to give up on the
concubines. He needs to find a queen.
He needs to develop social relationships,
join a club, get involved in charity,
maybe a hobby. The final finding is a bit of a
jump to a different topic but–sorry.
You raised–yes. Student: [inaudible]
Professor Paul Bloom: The question is,
“Would you become used to changes of social interaction?”
An example is solitary confinement or prison.
People get used to a lot of things.
It could be that in those examples there is a shift in
status as well and social relationships and how you think
of yourself relative to others so that may be difficult to
recover from. If you’re popular at Yale and
you go to prison you’re not going to be very happy your
first few days in prison probably.
But then suppose you get popular in prison,
people like you, you’re the head of the book
club and everything. [laughter]
You’d rather not be in prison–been in prison but
you’ll probably be a pretty–if you’re a cheerful guy here
you’ll be a cheerful guy in prison.
The final case is–involves judgments of the pleasure and
pain of past events. And I mentioned the Nobel prize
a little while ago as an example but the work I’m going to talk
about is actually from the one psychologist who’s alive who’s
won the Nobel prize–sorry, one of the ones who’s won the
Nobel prize, Daniel Kahneman. And he became interested in
happiness. And you remember him from his
rationality research and this is some work on happiness.
Here’s an example. Anybody see the movie
Marathon Man? It involves a dental torture
scene. Imagine you’re going to the
dentist and he’s torturing you or it’s a cleaning but it’s
really painful and it’s terrible.
You’re sweaty, you’re squeezing the thing,
and it lasts for an hour and then when it’s done the dentist
leans over and says, “We’re done now.
If you want we could stop. But if you want,
as a favor to you – I have five minutes – I could top you
off with some mild pain.” This may seem like a very odd
thing to ask. Here’s the alternative.
What do you want? A dental procedure that’s very
painful for an hour or a dental procedure that’s very painful
for an hour–sorry about the “S” there –and then some additional
mild pain? Who votes for A?
You got to choose one. Who votes for A?
Okay. Who votes for B?
Okay. Here’s the big finding.
The big finding is “yes,” B involves more pain.
It’s true. “A” is an hour of pain.
“B” is an hour of pain plus a few minutes of more pain.
Seems like a no-brainer but when you have A or B and you
have to remember it later on you’ll have a much nicer memory
of B than A. Kahneman’s insight is when you
think back on events you don’t just add up the amount of
pleasure or pain you experienced.
Rather, your memory is highly skewed to peaks and then to
endings. And you could imagine this.
In the first case, “A,” you leave and say,
“Oh, God, that was terrible. Oh.”
“B,” you leave and say, “Oh, that was mildly painful.
There was something terrible in the middle there but it ended
okay, mild pain.” It turns out,
in general, endings matter a lot.
Kahneman did his research with – both in a laboratory where
you could make – give people mild pain by getting them to
stick their hand in freezing cold water and with people
undergoing extremely painful colonoscopy procedures.
And it turns out that if you want to give people a good
memory, or a less bad memory, of a horrible event topping
them off with some mild pain will do the trick.
In the end, endings matter. Both of these examples,
a party that’s hugely fun for ninety percent,
then the last ten percent somebody slaps you in the face
and pours dip on you or something– [laughter]
So, ninety percent of good stuff,
ten percent bad stuff, versus ninety percent people
are slapping you and pouring dip on you [laughter]
but then ten percent, whoa, that was a really
good–when you think back on it, if you just added it up,
“A” would be much better but “B” has this huge pull because
of the power of how things end so endings matter.
So, I’m going to end things now. I’m first going to do a few
things. Before saying anything more,
I want to thank the teaching fellows.
There’s Sunny Bang, Erik Cheries,
Jane Erickson, Izzat Jarudi,
Greg Laun, and Koleen McCrink. I think they did a superb job.
[applause] We’ve basically reviewed all
the psychology. Here is a promissory note we
started with at the beginning of this semester.
I think you are now in a position to answer or at least
consider answers about these topics,
about topics such as dreams, testimony, disgust,
memory, depression, language,
humor, and even a little bit about good and evil.
This is an–a broad intro survey class,
and the field of psychology is broad and we’ve just gotten
started. If you’re interested,
this is a great department. There are some amazing scholars
here and some amazing teachers and there are courses that go
into detail about just about every topic I talked about.
If you’re interested in memory or social interaction or mental
illness, I could point you to some great courses.
I’m not taking any sophomore advisees next year because I’m
on leave in the fall but you should feel free to come talk to
me if you want any specific advice or suggestions.
Now, I know not all of you are going to end up majoring in
psychology. Some of you will choose
cognitive science instead [laughter]
but on a more serious note I know for some of you this is the
last–maybe the first but the last psychology class you’ll
ever take. And so I want to close this
course by emphasizing two themes.
The first one is a bit of humility.
There are some very basic questions about the mind – and
I’ve tried to be honest about this throughout the
course–There are some very basic questions about the mind
that nobody knows the answer to yet.
We know the brain is the source of mental life but we don’t have
any understanding at all about exactly how this happens,
about how a physical object, a lump of meat,
can give rise to conscious experience.
We know that about half of the variants in personality,
about half the differences between people,
are due to genetic factors but we don’t know how to explain
where the other half happens. It has to be experienced but we
have no real good theories of the sort of experience that
makes one person adventurous and another one timid,
one bitter and one satisfied. We know a lot about the social
influences that can drive people to do terrible things to one
another but we don’t know the answer to the maybe harder
question of why some of us–some people are immune to these
influences, why some people do good things,
perhaps even heroic things, regardless of the circumstances
that they find themselves in. So, there’s an enormous amount
left to do. It’s an exciting field just
because there’s just so much more we need to understand.
The second theme is more optimistic.
And this is the idea that we’re going to eventually come to
answer these questions and many more questions through the sorts
of methods we’ve been discussing this semester,
through constructing scientific theories,
evolution–evolutionary, neurological,
developmental, computational and testing them
through experimental and observational methods.
This is the idea that, in the end, the most important
and intimate aspects of ourselves,
our beliefs and emotions, our capacities to make
decisions, even our sense of right and wrong can be explained
through constructing and testing scientific hypotheses.
Now, the reason why I’m optimistic is I think there’s
been some success stories where we really have learned some
surprising and important things about the mind and there’s no
reason to expect this way of proceeding to fail us in the
future. In my very–in the very first
class on the brain I ended by talking about people’s worries
here, and I’ll be honest,
that some people find it a scary prospect.
Some people believe that a scientific approach to the mind
takes the “special-ness” away from people, that it diminishes
us somehow. And I don’t agree.
If there’s anything I’ve tried to persuade you through the
course, it’s that the more you look at the mind and how it
works from a serious scientific point of view the more you come
to appreciate its complexities, uniqueness, and its beauty.
This has been a great course to teach.
Thank you for coming and good luck on the Final.

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