WASHINGTON—Ever wonder what you were thinking when you got that AC/DC tattoo on your forehead or forgave your spouse for sleeping with your five closest friends?
According to Daniel Gilbert, the author of "Stumbling on Happiness," which is now out in paperback, our decisions about what will make us happy—or unhappy—almost always are clouded by inaccurate memories and over-reliance on present feelings.
"If I can create a whole lot of people who are much less confident about their predictions of the future, I will have done my job," said Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor. The book, he said, is "meant to make people second-guess themselves."
Gilbert, a specialist in intuitive judgment, says you can't rely on your past or present to predict your future because brains file away only a few cues to memory, mainly the highs and lows of an experience.
When it's time to remember, the brain invents the details. So your perception of the future is colored largely by the present moment, and it's extremely difficult to see beyond the current situation when trying to imagine even the near future.
For example, try to plan all the things you have to do next week after an exhausting day. You're far more likely to feel overwhelmed than you will tomorrow morning, when you're fresher.
Ignorance about the brain's defenses against unhappiness also distorts judgment, according to Gilbert. He calls the response, which kicks in after traumatic events to boost our mood, a "psychological immune system." For the most part this is a good thing, but it also makes us:
_Misjudge how unhappy we'll feel after a personal disaster. People imagine that they'll never get over being left at the altar or losing their jobs. But when these things happen, they generally find a silver lining and get over it.
_Sweat the small stuff. The psyche's immune system kicks in only when something awful befalls us. "Intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while mild suffering does not," Gilbert wrote. That explains why you forgave your spouse for straying but hold a grudge about the dirty dishes in the sink.
_Take a kinder view of things we're stuck with. According to Gilbert, "it is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience." That could be why you've convinced yourself that AC/DC really is a good band and chicks dig a man with forehead tattoos. Or why your boss looks the other way when you come in at 11 a.m. again but won't hire a candidate who shows up five minutes late for an interview.
Other potholes on the road to contentment include:
_Seeing future happiness as linked to just one thing. People think that a promotion will make them happy forever because they imagine only their elation when the decision is announced. They don't consider that they'll go home to the same domestic disasters and still have to floss.
_Thinking we'll regret action more than inaction. People think they'll be happier staying in secure jobs than they would be striking out on their own to start risky businesses. But Gilbert says, "people of every age and every walk of life seem to regret NOT having done things much more than they regret things they did."
If our own brains mislead us, how can we do better?
Talking to other people who are experiencing the thing we're considering is our best bet, Gilbert says. But it's not an option that most people find attractive, since we like to think of ourselves as unique.
"Most of us have very limited domains in which we're willing to trust" information from others, Gilbert said. "It turns out people aren't remarkably different in their emotional reactions to events."