Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Joy of Delusion

What would have happened if, at the end of "Casablanca," Ingrid Bergman had stayed with Humphrey Bogart in Morocco, rather than boarding the plane to Lisbon with her Nazi-fighting husband? Would she have regretted it? Or did she end up lamenting the decision she did make? According to Daniel Gilbert, odds are that either decision would have made her equally happy in the long run.
If this sounds like an odd question for a professor of psychology at Harvard to ask in a serious book about cognitive science, there are dozens more where that came from. Is it really possible that Christopher Reeve believed himself in some ways better off after he became a quadriplegic, or that Lance Armstrong is glad to have had cancer, or that cancer patients in general tend to be more optimistic about the future than healthy people? (Answers: yes, yes and yes.)

Gilbert is an influential researcher in happiness studies, an interdisciplinary field that has attracted psychologists, economists and other empirically minded researchers, not to mention a lot of interested students. (As The Boston Globe recently reported, a course on "positive psychology" taught by one of Gilbert's colleagues is the most popular course at Harvard.) But from the acknowledgments page forward, it's clear Gilbert also fancies himself a comedian. Uh-oh, cringe alert: an academic who cracks wise. But Gilbert's elbow-in-the-ribs social-science humor is actually funny, at least some of the time. "When we have an experience . . . on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time," he writes. "Psychologists calls this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."
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