Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I want a rocket-powered refrigerator!

This is the kind of article that makes my brain buzz. It's called The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, and it's about how bad we are at predicting how happy (or miserable) we'll be in the future. (It's from a 2003 NYT piece, but it was recently called to my attention after I read this article in the Washington Post, which is more current.)

Some of my favorite parts? The fact that the researcher, Daniel Gilbert, once wrote SF for Amazing Stories magazine:

"Thus, in addition to being 'one of the most gifted social psychologists of our age,' as the psychology writer and professor David G. Myers describes him to me, Gilbert is the author of 'The Essence of Grunk,' a story about an encounter with a creature made of egg salad that jets around the galaxy in a rocket-powered refrigerator."

And this quote from Gilbert's fellow researcher, Tim Wilson, about why we think future events will make us happier than they actually do:
''We don't realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.''
(Not if you read or write a poem about it, I say. Poetry helps keep the world from becoming too ordinary. So would a rocket-powered refrigerator.)

And then there's this about the predicted effect of bad things in our lives:
"Our emotional defenses snap into action when it comes to a divorce or a disease but not for lesser problems. We fix the leaky roof on our house, but over the long haul, the broken screen door we never mend adds up to more frustration."

What I'm wondering is (besides what would I do if my beloved rocket-powered refrigerator broke): how does literature, even literature about egg salad creatures, fit into all this?

If we're so bad (according to Gilbert) at predicting how we'll react to an event---completing overestimating how eternally happy or permanently sad something will make us---how come we are so good at predicting the future happiness/sorrow of a fictional character? Come on, we all know that Scarlett O'Hara is not going to be happy with Ashley. And although we might want to choke her, we also know that having Rhett leave her is not going to keep her down for long. In fact, much of story tension comes from us watching a character completely mess up their self-assessment, while we anxiously await them coming to their senses. I don't know what that egg-salad creature wants, but I'm sure that I know more about what's good for him than he/she/it does.

And to go further, this research is telling us that the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives are often wrong. We trick ourselves into not taking a risk by telling our impressionable brains a creepy horror story. And we bamboozle ourselves daily with tales of future delight---if only I could own a rocket-powered refrigerator, I'd be on top of the world!---which quickly lose their appeal, like stale cookies.

But wait! At one point in the article, it's mentioned that people do better at predicting their correct lasting emotional reaction to an event when told of the response of another group facing the same event. So the research is also saying that hearing other people's stories can be immensely helpful.

So I predict---and I don't think I'm wrong here---that further research will show that---DRUM ROLL---

Reading books = making better choices = future happiness.

Go ahead, read a bunch of books this year, and try to prove me wrong. Or write an email to your future self, make some predictions, and see what happens. Or send me a rocket-powered refrigerator and comfort me when it doesn't make me as happy as I think it will.

Oh, speaking of predictions, I want to bless Alison over at ShelfTalker for this prediction:
"That middle grade novel I originally ordered just two copies of, haven't heard a peep about, haven't had a chance to read, and haven't seen any marketing for? You know that the Newbery committee is going to give it an Honor five minutes after UPS carts it away in a returns box."
All you other '07 authors know exactly why that would be a very good thing for one of us.


  1. Word up on the rocket-powered refrigerator.

    AND on Shelftalker's quote. That sounds exactly like my book... up until the Newbery Honor part.

  2. OK, I think we ARE good at predicting but we don't WANT to because it means we'll be responsible to make it happen. Denial denial denial. So in books we're good at predicting and we're NOT responsible for making anything happen so we allow ourselves to fully realize the predictions. I'm with you -- keep readin'. It's good practice for, y'know, life...

  3. Predictions are for psychics! I want to escape into the wide open universe in a rocket powered refrigerator! Egg salad.... yum!

  4. Thanks for the blessing, Sara! I thought it might help your PRESENT happiness to know that your book is NOT slated to leave our store in a returns box come Monday. I know that's no shiny gold seal, but...? It's a gift with the potential to keep giving!

  5. Great post. I'm printing the Wash Post article for future reference. My brother is one of these people who thinks he'll be happy if... but can't seem to realize that he has to allow that happiness to happen within.

    Too corny? Should have made the comment about egg salad instead.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement, Alison! That does make me smile.

    MR: you can come back and talk egg salad with me anytime. Just keep it fresh. :)

    Amy and Sam: we'll hold races.

    Liz, wise, wise Liz: you know it.


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