Here is the full text of social psychologist Dan Gilbert’s talk titled “Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You” presented at the 2018 WORLD.MINDS Annual Symposium in Zurich, Switzerland
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Dan Gilbert on Happiness – What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You
Everyone I have ever met wants to know the secret of happiness. I have yet to find an exception.
This seems like to all of us a timeless question. But in fact, this question is brand new, because all of your ancestors knew what the secret of happiness was.
For most of human history, life was in the words of Thomas Hobbes: “solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short.” That’s right. Most of your ancestors had about 70% of their children died before they reached adulthood.
Food was scarce; health was poor. A day of work was long. And when you got up in the morning your entire to-do list was trying not to die today. Basically if you survived till the evening, it was a big success. And everybody knew what the secret of happiness was.
Happiness is a mythical state that a human being could attain, if only he or she had everything they wanted. And that, of course, doesn’t happen to human beings on earth. Maybe in heaven, but not to anyone here.
Happiness is what we get if only we could get what we wanted.
Well, fast forward 200,000 years and suddenly that hypothesis is put to a test, because we have three revolutions.
First, we have an agricultural revolution. Then we have an industrial revolution where we learn to make machines that work. And then recently a digital revolution where we learn to make machines that process information.
And as a result of these three revolutions which have happened in just the last 10,000 years, suddenly for the first time in human history, large populations of human beings have everything they want.
In all the places where the lights are on at night, the people have what they want. At least they have what they could reasonably want and guess what they’re not always happy.
Indeed, if you just look at the people who have far more than they could possibly want, they’re not always happy either. These five men have a combined net worth of $500 billion. This is the gross national product of India.
I have met all five of these men. They are always interesting. They are always kind. They are not always happy.
If happiness is what happens when we get what we want, they should not only be happy, they should be billions of times happier than me. And they’re not.
Which suggests that happiness isn’t about getting what we want. And the question is: why do we think it is?
One of the answers is that every one of us is a citizen of a social unit. We are members of families, members of communities, universities, organizations. And we are surrounded by other people who tell us where happiness is to be found, right?
We’ve all got moms and dads, aunts and uncles. We meet bartenders and taxi drivers. There are motivational speakers and talk-show hosts. And every one of them has a theory about what you have to do if you want to be happy in life. And we are the recipients of all that cultural wisdom.
The problem with cultural wisdom is it turns out not to always be very wise.
How do I know that? What gives me the right to stand here and say that your mom and dad might actually be wrong?
Well I’m a scientist. In the last 30 years psychologists and economists have gotten together to get into the happiness business. That’s right.
They found ways to measure happiness and if you can measure something you can do science on it. Using all the basic tools that scientists use to figure out what makes butterflies migrate or what causes cells to divide, economists and psychologists have been figuring out what causes human happiness.
And I want to share with you just a little bit of what they found, by first introducing you to my mom.
Now my mom gave me a lot of advice about happiness, so much that I would need an hour and 18 minutes, not just 18 minutes to tell you all the things she said I had to do if I wanted to have a happy life.
But when I think about it, her advice really came down to three major things.
First, Marriage. My mother had no doubt that I needed to find a nice girl and get married.
Second, my mother said I needed to make money. Now my mother would never have used the word money. But what she would say is it would be good if you were comfortable. It’s good if you’re not worried too much about things, by which she meant money. I should do something in my life to have material well-being.
Finally, my mother said children. Children, lots of children soon.
Okay. Now I thought this was Doris Gilbert’s prescription for happiness and it was. But it turns out it is also the advice that mothers in every culture on earth give their children. These three things seem to be universal in our belief about what brings happiness. Well, do they?
ARE MOTHERS ALL OVER THE WORLD RIGHT OR WRONG?
The answer is yes. Let me show you.
Let’s start with marriage. Now I could ask you: I could say please raise your hand if you think marriage makes people happy. And what I would find in this audience is most of the hands do not go up.
On the other hand, if you were here with your spouses, almost all the hands would go up even if your spouse had to raise it for you.
The truth is you are smarter when your spouse is around. Marriage does make people happy.
HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?
Well let’s look at the basic fact. If you look at people with different marital statuses you see this pattern of data over and over all over the world. Married people are happier than every other group of people, especially people who are separated down at the bottom end.
And why shouldn’t they be? They have better health. They earn more money per capita. They have more sex and enjoy it more. Virtually everything you might think is an ingredient for a happy life, married people have more of it.
This difference between the married and the unmarried is stable across the lifespan. What you’re seeing here is the typical U-shaped curve of happiness. And you can see what many of you have probably learned, which is it’s really good to be young and then life gets harder.
But don’t worry because it’s really good to be old too. Young people and old people are quite happy and all the people in the middle are less happy probably because they’re mainly taking care of the people on the two sides of them.
What I want you to notice about these two lines is that at every stage, the married people are happier. This is also a finding that seems to be stable across time.
Here are data for happiness of U.S. citizens from the ‘70s through the 2010s and you can see that some years are happy years. And if you’ve been following American politics, some years are not happy years.
But what you can see is although happiness does go up and down a bit, the married people are always happier than the unmarried people. In fact, in the worst year, married people are still happier than unmarried people in the best year.