Home » Dan Gilbert: Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You (Transcript)

Dan Gilbert: Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You (Transcript)

Dan Gilbert on happiness at 2018 WORLD MINDS Annual Symposium

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

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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?


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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.


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.

Now you might ask yourself particularly if you have a scientific bent: Oh, wait a minute, that’s a correlation. What you’re telling me is married people are happier. But that doesn’t mean marriage made them happier. In fact, maybe happiness makes marriage. Maybe people are happier do better on the marriage market.

In fact, they do. That’s correct. You had to marry one of the characters from Winnie the Pooh: it’s either Eeyore or Piglet. It’s a bad choice but you know you’re going to take Piglet and not Eeyore. Nobody wants to be stuck with somebody who is morose, sad and dour.

But we also know that marriage is a cause of happiness. HOW DO WE KNOW THIS? Well, take a look at data like these. These are what we call longitudinal data where you follow the same people whether they’re Piglets or Eeyores over time. And this is typically what you see.

As people move towards their wedding day, they’re getting happier and happier. And after their wedding they’re really happy; we call this the honeymoon period. And then guess what? Happiness starts to decline.

Now if I were to draw this graph out past six years to 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, does it ever come back to where it started? Yes, I’m afraid it does.

It looks like the happiness benefits of marriage wear off. How long does it take? Some studies suggest it’s as little as 10 years; some as much as 20, let’s call it 15.

Now some of you look disappointed. But wait a minute, 15 years of extra happiness in your life for the sentence I do… it’s the world’s shortest sentence and you bought yourself 15 extra years of happiness, there isn’t much to complain about.

I should note before leaving the topic of marriage that the other thing that makes people as happy as getting married is getting divorced. When you look at divorce statistics, people get much happier after a divorce.

Now wait a minute. How can it be that marriage and divorce which are opposites both make you happy? Should I get out go out and get married than divorced, married divorced, married divorce, like Hollywood people do? No.

What these two statistics tell us together….

What these two data points tell us together and I think everyone would agree is that it isn’t marriage that makes us happy, it’s good marriage that makes us happy. That is when people are in marriages that are at least good enough not to get divorced, they get happiness out of them.

One of the best ways to predict whether marriage will make somebody happy is their answer to the question: is your spouse your best friend? People who answer yes to that question get a big boost out of marriage.

Okay. MONEY. Everybody knows that money can’t buy happiness. That is the stupidest thing you will ever hear anyone say. It is utterly not true; it is false in any study I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a single study or getting more money made anybody less happy.

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Money buys happiness. If you don’t know that, go talk to somebody who is homeless, living in a cardboard box under a bridge and explain to them that true happiness comes from something other than money. No, it doesn’t. Money makes people happy.

But you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? But it isn’t a simple relationship between money and happiness. It’s what we call a curvilinear relationship.

If you look at this graph and contemplate it, what you see is that the first dollar you earn is a source of great joy and every other dollar or euro or mark afterwards brings you just a little less happiness.

Moving people out of poverty into the middle class dramatically changes their lives. Moving them from the middle class to the upper class? Well, it does increase their happiness but not that much.

And moving them into the stratospherically wealthy does almost nothing at all.

Now where on this curve is the line where basically the inflection point… the point where there’s really not much more benefit to having more money?

In U.S. dollars you get 95% of all the happiness that money can buy if you are in $75,000 per year. I should note that 80% of Americans don’t earn this amount. But this is nowhere near being rich.

Why does this line curve… some people believe it’s the law of nature. Money is like pancakes, right? You eat one and it’s fabulous. The second is pretty good. The third is starting to feel like too much. And after that you’re feeling sick.

It’s just a law of nature that enough is enough. But economists like to say if money doesn’t make you happy, you’re not spending it right. And in fact, that is true.

We know that people who have money do the wrong things with it if what they want is happiness. I’ll give you an example.

This is a study on how happy a number of about 10,000 Europeans are as they are going about a number of daily ordinary activities: working, commuting, watching TV et cetera. You shouldn’t be surprised by most of these data.

Guess what? Most people just hate being at work. They really don’t like traveling to it either. Watching television is okay. Talking with somebody usually a friend or a family member is a real pleasure.

And guess what? Psychologists find that people like sex. Yes, they really do seem to get a lot of pleasure from sex.

Now here’s the data point that I hope will surprise you: how happy are people when they’re doing nothing, when they’re resting, when they’re just looking up into the sky with their hands behind their heads? They’re about as happy as when they are working or commuting.

Doing nothing is not a source of pleasure. But if you ask people what would you do if you won the lottery, they almost give you… always give you some answer that’s some version of rest: Oh I would quit my job. I would stop, I would just get a boat and I would just sail and I would just rest. Wrong answer!

I would talk during sex. That’s a good answer. Not I would rest.

Now finally children. Children… this is the easy one; isn’t it? In English, we say a child is a bundle of joy. In other words, it is a good that is named after happiness. Children are the greatest source of happiness. Compared to anything else, nothing else is a source of happiness.

And yet when you look at the data you find consistently that people without children are happier than people with children. And people with children are the least happy when their children have the audacity to actually live with them.

You see the same thing if you follow people over time. As they approach the birth of their first child their happiness is stable. And then once they have their first child their happiness decreases.

If I were to extend this line out, does it come back… how long does it take to come back to where it started? Never, or in some datasets approximately when your children move away, it may come back to its baseline or it may not.

While you have children if you have children, on average they will make you less happy, not more.

How unhappy do children make you? Is it a little? Is it a lot? Here are some data collected on about a thousand American women who are also reporting on their happiness as they go about a number of daily normal activities. These are collected by someone who won the Nobel Prize in Economics recently.

And you’re going to see how happy these women are as they do ordinary things like talking with friends which is great, eating which everybody enjoys. But grocery shopping and doing housework, they’re very low on anybody’s list of happiness making activities.

How happy are women when they are with their children? It’s like scrubbing the toilet. It’s not even as good as shopping for the things you need to scrub the toilet.

Now I know it’s amusing and yet most of you don’t believe it. You think it’s funny but there’s got to be something wrong, because if I asked any of you: how many of you are now ready to give away your children? Nobody would raise their hand.

Inside you’re thinking this just doesn’t ring true of me. And one reason is it probably isn’t true of you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because it’s not true for you it is not true for the majority of the world.

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Let me show you, for example, what kinds of things determine whether parenthood will or won’t make you happy? Now if we lived in a world in which children had no impact on your happiness, these are the kinds of data we would see. We would see that about half the people are getting happiness out of their children and half are getting unhappiness out of their children. And those two things cancel out and children have no net impact on average.

My mother said we live in this world… we live in a world where virtually everybody gets joy, some people great joy from their children and of course there are a few crazy people out there who don’t.

But this is the world we actually live in, a world in which this distribution is slightly shifted to the left. In other words, on average children are having a small but negative effect on the happiness of their parents.

But notice in this curve there are plenty of people like most of you who are getting pleasure from their children: who are these lucky souls? Well we know a lot of things about whether happiness will or won’t make… whether children will or won’t make people happy? For example, we know it varies very much by nationality.

In about two-thirds of the nations that have been surveyed by the Gallup Organization, children create a negative effect on their parents’ happiness. But about one-third they create a positive effect. These are the big winners and losers from last year’s survey of Montenegro and Macedonia. I have no idea why they are so far out on the extremes.

But I can tell you the United States and Switzerland are very close to 0, just slightly on the negative side.

We also see that your marital status makes a big difference. Look at this, married people again are getting a small negative effect of children. But the big negative effects are accruing to people who are single or divorced.

We also know that the younger you are, the more likely it is your children are making you unhappy rather than happy. And of course, much to everybody’s surprise women are made much less happy by children than men are.

Now what do all these data tell you: they tell you what probably should have known which is children are really hard work. We give up blood, sweat, tears, hair or money, all sorts of things to raise them. If you have those things to give, if you have resources, your children you’d be a great source of pleasure.

But if you are like most people in the world not capable of assigning all these resources to child rearing, children are really really hard work. And hard work doesn’t make people happy.

So what does my mom… how is she batting here? How was her score? Well on marriage she was right. But she should have mentioned I wouldn’t have had more than one if she had just told me it has to be a good one. I didn’t know I thought marriage, okay.

Money? Well, she was right but she also should have mentioned that a little bit of money buys a lot of happiness and a lot more money only buys a little bit.

And children, yes for some people but not for most.

The word for happiness is related to the word for luck in almost all human languages. Why is that? The historian Darrin McMahon put it very well:

“For cultures regularly subject to upheavals and twists of fate — from the descent of plague to the appearance of a marauding army to the onset of famine or the wrath of one’s betters — it was difficult to imagine happiness as something that could endure, still less as something that one could control.  Happiness, rather, was in the hands of the gods, meted out by fortune, or forged in the crucible of fate.”

Happiness was luck, a good luck that occurred for almost nobody and now we are suddenly in a new age. For the first time in human history we have our happiness in our hands. It is in our control.

How should we look for it? Where should we go? What should we do to find it? Well, for centuries, millennia, we’ve been relying on the wisdom of our cultures.

Look, I love my mother but she’s not the person I go to, to find out anything about nuclear fission or nano-scale batteries, okay.

For those things, these facts about the world I turn to science. I’d like to suggest to you that what makes human beings happy is a fact about human beings that science can discover. And it is a place we can now reliably turn for information about happiness.

It’s my belief that the more we truly understand about this central phenomenon in our lives, the more likely it is that we can get greater happiness for ourselves, for those we love and for all the people of this planet.

Thank you so much for your kind attention.


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