Annoying Features of the Mind

Something’s gone wrong, all these things we think are going to make us happy aren’t. So what’s going wrong? And when you pose this to students, in particular, you often get two kinds of answers. One answer is well, I bet all those things like salary, grades, and all that stuff, I bet that’s not making you happier because maybe you can’t make people happier. Maybe your happiness just genetically set, and you just can’t change it around. Maybe you’re either a glass half empty person or glass half full person, and that’s it. You’re just stuck that way, even if you get the perfect grade, and a good true love, and all that stuff is not going to help you, right? So that’s one thing you sometimes hear. The other thing you sometimes hear is well, all that stuff is great, but life sucks. Bad stuff happens, and maybe even if you get the perfect grade, a horrible thing happens, and you just can’t be as happy because other horrible stuff happens, right? So ideas like your life circumstances creep up on you. So maybe you got the perfect grade, but terrible car accident or something or maybe the opposite. Maybe you didn’t get that job, but then something else good happens.

It all kind of balances out, your life circumstances, right? And so these are the kind of two answers people give. Genetically we’re just set, we can’t change it. Second is, life circumstances matter so much it trumps everything else or somehow the life circumstances balance out. And in fact, those two answers are both wrong. They just don’t seem to bear out in the data. And we’ll end with this, which is the lovely work by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has this book that I mentioned before, The How of Happiness, how to get the life you want. She’s actually done some really cool scientific work to try to parse this out.

To try to say, okay, how much do genes play into happiness? How much do life circumstances play into happiness, and so on. And the fast version of it, is that to look at the role of genes, she’s been able to look at different happiness measures across identical twins who presumably have the same genes. And she can compare their kind of happiness correlation with happiness correlations across fraternal twins, who don’t have the same genes, but have similar life circumstances. Bunch of studies on that. There’s also a bunch of studies looking at life circumstances. Particularly, people’s life circumstances where there’s been some sort of train wreck, for lack of a better term. Really terrible things happen, you become paraplegic, you lose your job, you become a widow, all these things. And you can kind of parse all the different parts together, and ask, how much of a contribution is all these different things actually making? And this is the pie chart that she’s kind of famously came up with to describe this stuff, of how much of a contribution each of these things makes. There is a decently big slice that comes from your genetics. It seems like we do actually have a genetic set point for happiness. This idea that some people are glass full people, some people are glass empty, that does seem to be borne out by the data, but often way less than we think. It’s only about 50%.

There’s a lot of movement there. The thing that’s amazing is the life circumstances part. The thing we really think effects you, like if you had a car crash, or you’re a paraplegic, or you won the lottery, all these things, that actually is the smallest component of our happiness. It seems like only about 10% of our actual happiness is effected by that. The final part seems to be based on all kinds of actions, intentions, habits that people bring in. That big 40% seems to control a lot of our happiness, and the good news is that, unlike the other stuff, that part really is under our control. It’s under our control in important ways, we can work towards it. And she has this lovely quote about this, where she says, our intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effect of set points, these are these genetic things, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. We can work hard to be happier. The problem is that we seem to be working towards the wrong things. We seem to be putting our time into things like getting good grades, and getting the best job, and all this stuff. We plan for that stuff, but it’s not the stuff that’s making us happy.

And so the upshot is, is that there are things we can do to become happier. But most of the goals we think are going to make us happy, don’t actually make us happy. So we have to kind of pick the right goals, and that’s what we’re going to talk about in future lectures. However, I had to end on a particular note, just in case some of you thinking this, because I think it’s important, another fallacy we’re going to see creeping up. And that fallacy goes something like, okay, that science stuff might be true for everybody else. Maybe that’s true for all the freshmen you surveyed before, but I actually am going to be happier if I get the perfect job this summer. Or like when you thought about how sad you’re going to be, the person who said one when they get that grade. I actually am going to feel like a one when I get that grade.

That science doesn’t apply to me. And so, to that, I will introduce you to the first of many things you’re going to hear in this course, which I’m going to call annoying features of the mind that actually lead us astray. It’s just dumb ways that the mind is set up, that mess us up. We kind of saw this already, where we think that once we know something, we’re going to get better at it. There’s always these dumb, annoying features. And this dumb annoying feature that makes you think that, is that you think that when your mind delivers to you an intuition like, I’m going to feel really sad if I get a bad grade, that that intuition is normatively correct. But the fact is, that the mind all the time is delivering to us these intuitions about what’s going to make us happy, what’s correct, what line is longer, what table is longer. All those intuitions that are just wrong. Sometimes our mind delivers to us stuff that’s just like, factually incorrect.

And we can see it in vision, right, we saw it here with the case of the table. The key is that sometimes, even outside of vision, we’re getting these intuitions that our mind is delivering to us with full force, like that’s the right answer, that’s what’s going to make us happy, but it is just wrong. Just to see one on the kind of more reasoning side. Some of you might have seen this problem before. If you have, don’t answer, but this is a problem that’s kind of commonly given in business schools. So if a baseball, and a bat together cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs a $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost? So yell out answers, real fast. >> Five cents. >> You guys, Yale students. Most people when they see this have the intuition, the answer’s got to be $0.1. I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but some of you are smirking, so I know you had the intuition. I won’t ask to embarrass yourself, but that is the wrong answer, the correct answer is $0.05.

In fact, if you do this, most students even in intro algebra classes, and stuff, will get this stuff wrong. Sometimes we get this answer, like my gosh, it’s popping out, it’s obviously $0.1, but that’s the wrong answer. And what we’re going to see in this course, is that there are tons of things that are going to work like this. You’re going to get an incredibly strong intuition that you would hate it if you left this room, and got immediately hit by a car, and were paraplegic for the rest of your time at Yale. You have the intuition that would ruin your time at Yale. But it’s actually just not true. You have the intuition that if you left here, and somehow, some random relative that you don’t remember or know left you $27 million, and you just had that to play around with the rest of your time at Yale. You have the intuition that that would make the rest of your time at Yale pretty awesome. But in fact, it would make it much less awesome than you think. You have the intuition that if you get the grade that you want or a grade that’s higher than you want, it’s going to be better, but it’s just not. So many of our intuitions about happiness are just wrong. And that’s one of the things we’re going to have to tackle as we kind of go through the rest of the course. And so for that, we’ll kind of remind you the kind of message, which is that, most of the goals we think are going to make us happy aren’t. And the rest of our time, we’re going to kind of go through the goals that will. And with that, we will finish today, and open up for any questions you have.