Science of Happiness Class - Fall 2008 Labs

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Schedule of Classes and Topics

8/26: Introduction: Logistics, goals, themes{No Reading}

PART 1: Who we are and what we want

8/28: The Divided Self: Naming your inner elephant{JH 1}

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh... (St. Paul)

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

Week of 9/1:

9/2: Approach/Withdrawal and Negativity Bias {JH 2}

The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it. (Marcus Aurelius)

Why are some people optimists and others pessimists? Why do people tend to choose mates, and even professions, whose names resemble their own? The automatic emotional reactions of the elephant guide us throughout our lives. Learn how to change those automatic reactions, using using meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac

9/4: Prospection: Thinking about the future {DG 1}

Journey to Elsewhen In Chapter 1, I describe how and why the human brain learned to look forward in time. I claim that this ability is uniquely important and uniquely human. But is that true? How do we know that other animals can’t think about the future?

The psychologists William Roberts, Thomas Suddendorf, and Janie Busby describe research that attempts to determine whether non-human animals are, in fact, "stuck in time," or whether they (like us) can engage in "mental time travel." These writers conclude that animals cannot think about the long-term future, but the case is far from open-and-shut and their evidence and arguments are provocative.

Question What could a nonlinguistic animal ever do to prove to us that it can think about the future?

Readings T. Suddendorf, & J. Busby, "Mental time travel in animals?" Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, 391-396 (2003).


9/9: Natural selection and human nature {JH 3}


Zigong asked: ‘Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?’ The Master said: ‘Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.’ (Analects of Confucius)

Many species have a social life, but among mammals, only humans (and naked mole rats) are ultra-social – able to live in very large cooperative groups. The golden rule, supplemented with gossip, is the secret of our success. Understanding the deep workings of reciprocity can help you to solve problems in your own social life, and guard against the many ways people try to manipulate you.

9/11: Subjectivity: Comparing levels of happiness {DG 2}

The View from in Here In Chapter 2, I begin an examination of the emotional experience we call happiness. The human brain learned to look forward in time so that it could steer us toward happy futures and away from unhappy ones. But is happiness really the only thing we should be aiming for?

Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham answered that question with a qualified "yes" and their philosophy of "utilitarianism" explains why. Robert Nozick disagreed, arguing that no one would want to spend his life in a virtual reality machine that provided artificial happiness. But is that true? Psychologist Geoffrey Miller speculates about what might happen to a society of individuals who learn how to synthesize happiness rather than "earning" it the old-fashioned way.

Question Is happiness one of many things a person can value, or is happiness what "valuing" means? In other words, do we ever value anything for any reason other than its potential to bring us happiness in the short or long term?

Readings "What Utilitarianism Is" in J.S. Mill "Utilitarianism" (1863), in On Liberty, the Subjection of Women and Utilitarianism, in The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, ed. D.E. Miller (New York: Modern Library, 2002).

"Happiness" in R. Nozick The Examined Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, 102.

G. Miller, "Why we haven't met any aliens,"Seed, April/May, 41-43 (2006).

Week of 9/15:

9/16: Measurement of happiness {DG 3}

Outside Looking In In Chapter 3, I dive into the psychological research literature by posing what seems like a simple question: How are you? As it turns out, people can't always answer this question accurately because they don't always know what they are feeling. This is a real problem, because a science of happiness requires that we measure happiness—and if people don't know what they are feeling, then how in the world can they tell us?

In his unbelievably brilliant book, the unbelievably brilliant psychologist Tim Wilson (who just so happens to be my research collaborator, so there is some small possibility I'm biased) explains how and why we are such "strangers to ourselves." The psychologists Norbert Schwarz and Fritz Strack describe some of the perils and pitfalls of measuring happiness.

Question What can and can't people tell us about their current emotional state, and are the things they tell us the best measure—or perhaps even the only measure—of their happiness?

Readings "Knowing Why" and "Knowing How We Feel" in T.D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 93-136.

N. Schwarz & F. Strack, "Reports of Subjective Well-Being: Judgmental Processes and Their Methodological Implications," in Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, ed. D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwarz (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), 61-84; D. Kahneman, "Objective Happiness," in Well-Being, 3-25.


9/18: Naïve realism and self serving bias PART 1{JH 4}


Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Jesus)

Part of our ultra-sociality is that we are constantly trying to manipulate others perceptions of ourselves, without realizing that we are doing so. We see the faults of others clearly, but are blind to our own. Hypocrisy is part of human morality, and it sets us all up for lives of conflict. Learn how to take off the moral glasses and see the world as it really is.

9/23: Naïve realism and self serving bias PART 2{DG 4&5}

In the Blindspot of the Mind's Eye In Chapter 4, I pose and begin to answer the book's central question: Why do people make mistakes when they look into their own futures and try to decide what will make them happy? The full answer to this question extends over six chapters that describe the three basic mistakes that people make.

"Reality" is a movie generated by our brains. Because we don't realize this, we are far too confident that the stuff appearing in the movie is actually "out there" in the world when, in fact, it's not. When we imagine the future, we are similary overconfident that it will unfold as we imagine it.

The psychologist Jim Enns explains how our brains produce The Movie That Doesn't Seem Like A Movie. The fact that reality is a movie has important consequences for our personal and social lives, some of which are explored by the psychologists Edward Royzman, Kimberly Cassidy, and Jonathan Baron, and also by the psychologists Less Ross and Andy Ward. (By the way, near the end of their article, Royzman et al take a very clever whack at Nozick's experience machine argument from Chapter 2).

Question If people are naturally trapped in their own points of view, and if this is the basis of costly errors, then what kinds of individual remedies might we apply?

Readings J. T. Enns, "What Vision Is Not," in The Thinking Eye, the Seeing Brain (New York: Norton, 2004), 4-13.

E. B. Royzman, K. W. Cassidy, and J. Baron, "I Know, You Know: Epistemic Egocentrism in Children and Adults," Review of General Psychology, 7, 38-65 (2003).

L. Ross and A. Ward, "Naive Realism in Everyday Life: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding," in Values and knowledge: The Jean Piaget series ed. E. S. Reed, E. Turiel, and T. Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996), 103-135.

The Hound of Silence Chapter 5 continues the discussion from the previous chapter. One problem with the "Reality Movie" is that some of the things that are in the movie aren't in reality itself. But the other problem is that some of the things that are in reality aren't included in the movie.

When we imagine the future, we leave things out, and the things we leave out are important. The psychologists Cheryl Wakslaks, Yaacov Trope, and Nira Liberman review work showing that as the imagined future gets further away from us, we leave out more and more details. This causes us to agree to do things in the future that we don't want to do when the time to do them arrives, such as raking the leaves or visiting the dentist.

The psychologists Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Lee Ross explore another consequence of our brain's tendency to leave some things out of the "Reality Movie," namely, the fact that we overestimate how much we will be able to do in the future.

Question If the foibles of imagination lead us to commit ourselves to take actions in the far future that we would be too lazy or scared to take in the near future, then should we really think of them as errors?

Readings C. J. Wakslak, Y. Trope, and N. Liberman, "Transcending the Now: Time as a Dimension of Psychological Distance," in Timing the future, ed. M. Myslobodsky (London: World Scientific/Imperial College, 2006).

R. Buehler, D. Griffin, and M. Ross, "Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions," in Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, ed. T. Gilovich and D. Griffin (New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 250-270.

9/25: Exam 1

Week of 9/30:

PART 2: Barriers to happiness

9/30: Heritability, Adaptation and Hedonic Treadmill {JH 5, up to beginning of pg 90}

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. (Epictetus)

We often hear that happiness comes from within, you can’t seek it in external things. And for a while, in the 1990s, psychologists agreed with the ancient sages that external conditions don’t matter. But now we know that some do. Find out what you can do to improve your happiness, including spending money well. Buddha and Epictetus may have gone too far; the Western emphasis on action and striving is not so bad, when done right.

10/2: Cognitive failures: Barriers to getting what you want {BS 3}

Framing, availability, and choice

10/7: Hedonic (mis)forecasting Part 1 {DG 6}

The Future is Now In Chapter 6, I describe the second mistake we make when we try to estimate our future happiness. People gauge how happy a particular future will make them by imagining it, and then asking themselves how they feel when they do. The problem is that people get their current feelings and their future feelings all mixed up. We buy too much when we shop on an empty stomach because we can't separate how much we want the potato chips right now from how much we will want them tomorrow. Psychologist Leaf van Boven and decision-scientist George Loewenstein explain how and why this happens.

We gauge the goodness of the future (and hence the wisdom of our decision) by asking how we feel when we imagine it, and the neurologist Antonio Damasio describes a case of a brain-damaged man who has no feelings when he imagines the future, which makes it nearly impossible for him to decide what to do next.

Question We apparently can't do without our prefeelings, and yet, using them leaves us susceptible to a variety of errors. Is there a way to use them more wisely?

Readings "A modern Phineas Gage" in Descartes' Error, Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, A.R. Damasio, (New York: Avon Books, 1994) 34-51.

"Cross-Situational Projection," L. Van Boven, and G. Loewenstein in The Self in Social Perception, ed. M. Alicke, D. Dunning, and J. Krueger (New York: Psychology Press, in press).

10/9: Hedonic (mis)forecasting Part 2 {DG 7}

Time Bombs Chapter 7 extends the ideas presented in the previous chapter. The fact that the present exerts such a strong influence on our ability to imagine the future causes us to make some rather strange choices. For instance, psychologists Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav show that the way we think about the future causes us to seek more variety than we will actually enjoy. Psychologists Chris Hsee, George Loewenstein, Sally Blount, and Max Bazerman show that choices involve comparisons, but the comparisons we make when we imagine the future are not the comparisons we make when we get there. Economist Dick Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein discuss the ways in which social institutions might use these errors to promote desirable ends.

Question Are social policies that promote certain behaviors by capitalizing on the foibles of human judgment more or less insidious and effective than those that promote behaviors by explicitly rewarding and punishing them?

Readings D. Ariely and J. Levav, "Sequential Choice in Group Settings: Taking the Road Less Traveled and Less Enjoyed," Journal of Consumer Research 27, 279-290 (2000).

C.K. Hsee, G. F. Loewenstein, S. Blount, and M.H. Bazerman, "Preference Reversals Between Joint and Separate Evaluations of Options: A Review and Theoretical Analysis," Psychological Bulletin 125, 576-590 (1999).

R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, "Libertarian Paternalism," American Economic Review 93, 175-179 (2003).

Week of 10/14:

10/14: Too much choice? {BS Prologue + BS 4}

Maximization, regret, perfectionism

10/16: Regrets, rumination, and social comparison {BS 6&7}

Opportunity cost and avoiding regret

10/21: Clinical depression {Reading posted on blackboard}

10/23: Weakness of will 1: Time Discounting, Temporal perspectives and visceral factors {Lowenstein article posted on Blackboard}

Week of 10/28:

10/28: Weakness of will 2: Addiction {No Reading}

10/30: Exam #2

PART 3: What makes people Happy?

11/4: Drugs & Happiness: recreation & medication{Reading on blackboard}

11/6: Cooking the facts {DG 8 & 9}

Paradise Glossed In Chapter 8, I describe the third mistake that prevents us from accurately imagining our future happiness. People are remarkably good at making the best of bad situations—changing their views of the world in order to feel better about the world in which they find themselves. For instance, psychologists Camille Wortman and Roxy Silver show that people cope with loss far better than most of us would expect.

Psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown argue that certain kinds and amounts of self-deception are the cornerstones of mental health. On the other hand, psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that self-deception has a cost, and that people who fool themselves about their own wonderfulness are a threat to themselves and others.

Question People change their views of reality in order to feel better about it, but should we teach and encourage or discourage such behavior?

Readings C.B. Wortman and R.C. Silver, "The Myths of Coping with Loss Revisited," in Handbook of Bereavement Research: Consequences, Coping, and Care ed. M. S. Stroebe and R. O. Hansson (Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, 2001) 405-429.

S.E. Taylor and J.D. Brown, "Illusion and Well-Being: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Mental Health," Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210 (1988).

R.F. Baumeister, "Violent Pride: Do People Turn Violent Because of Self-Hate, or Self-Love?" Scientific American, 284, 96-101 (2001).

Immune to Reality In the previous chapter I argued that people are quite good at changing their views of the world in order to change the way they feel about it. In Chapter 9, I argue that people are typically unaware that they have this talent. This lack of self-insight not only causes people to underestimate their future happiness, but it also causes them to do things that will undermine it, such as shopping in stores with liberal return policies, or seeking information about their secret admirers. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert (who often talks about himself in the third person) suggests that this tendency may even help explain why people believe in God. Psychologist Barry Schwartz asks whether the freedom to choose and to change one's mind might diminish, rather than enhance, happiness.

Question If people really are happier with choices when they can't undo them, then perhaps divorce should be illegal. How do we balance the costs of too little and too much freedom of choice?

Readings D. T. Gilbert, "The vagaries of religious experience," Edge, September 27 (2005).

B. Schwartz, "Self-Determination: The Tyranny of Freedom," American Psychologist, 55, 79-88 (2000).

Week of 11/11:

11/11: Pleasure misremembered, and relying on others {DG 10 & 11}

11/13: Happiness from within and without {JH 5 *starting with pg 90}

11/18: Love and Attachments {JH 6}

11/20: Uses of Adversity, and the value of gratitude {JH 7}

11/25: Virtue {JH 8}

Week of 12/2:

12/2: Divinity with and without God: {JH 9 & 10}

12/4: What should government do, if anything? {Sunstein & Thaler article posted on blackboard}

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