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Shambhala Sun: Why does caring for others make us so happy?

Daniel Gilbert: Altruism is a social act, an interpersonal act. It makes people feel good about their place in the world, good about others, and it makes others esteem them. It has everything we want as social animals. It isn’t surprising, then, that when people give of themselves to others, and are recognized for it, they experience lots of happiness and an increase in self-esteem.

Interestingly, though, we’ve just done a study that shows that when people are offered the opportunity to do something selfish or something altruistic, they take the selfish option by and large. Culture has told them this is what they should do to be happy, but if you force them to take the altruistic option, they’re much happier. It’s a case of people not really knowing what will make them happy, not knowing what’s good for them. Altruism is a thing you might resist kicking and screaming—“I want to keep my money; I don’t want to give it away”—but if you give it away, it will probably make you happier than most of the things you could spend it on.

Shambhala Sun: Buddhists hold that the first truth of life is suffering, and that the attempt to deny this itself makes us unhappy. Do you think the way to happiness is to accept the pervasive nature of suffering?

Daniel Gilbert: The possibility of a life free of suffering is as close to zero as I can imagine. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like. If we think about what emotions do for us—why the brain evolved feelings like happiness and unhappiness—it becomes perfectly clear that having positive feelings all the time is neither possible nor desirable.

What are feelings for? From the psychological and biological point of view, emotions constitute a primitive signaling system. They are your brain’s way of telling you when you are doing things that are or are not in your best interest. It’s no coincidence that fat, sugar, salt, and sex tend to make people happy. These things are, by and large, very good for mammals. They keep them alive and reproducing. It’s no surprise that a whack on the head or a scary face make people unhappy. They are dangerous. Your emotions, then, are a very rough, but not bad, guide to what’s good or bad for you in the world, a compass as it were.

What good is a compass always stuck on north? A compass needle has to be free to fluctuate. Similarly, an emotional system, substantiated in the human brain, has to be free to go from happy to unhappy. It can’t get stuck on endlessly blissful, or else it approaches everything or avoids everything equally. We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer. We’re supposed to suffer when we are encountering circumstances that aren’t good for us.

Shambhala Sun: Do you believe that happiness can come from returning to a state of grace from which we have all strayed?

Daniel Gilbert: No. Many people have a kind of Luddite notion: “Let’s go back to the meadow, back to the Garden of Eden. It will be wonderful. It will all be like it used to be.” Well, it all used to suck. Women were oppressed, children were used like cattle, people raped, pillaged, and plundered, everybody lived to about the age of twenty-seven and had bad teeth! Who would want to go back? What we have right now is marvelous. It’s far from perfect, but our job is to make it better—not to go backwards, but to go forward.


Stumbling on Happiness, Shambhala Sun, January 2007.


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