Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Secret of Happiness

I strongly recommend this 22 minute clip of Harvard prof. Dan Gilbert talking about happiness. In general, I don't much like video clips online (unless they are very short -- I can read text faster than most audio and video plays) but this presentation is so interesting, and so well done, that I strongly recommend watching it all.

(incidentally, is it just me, or is there a flourishing movement for good presentations? I'm thinking about sites like Presentation Zen, Guy Kawasaki, Dick Hardt at OSCON (channeling Lessig), and I suppose Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth although I have not watched the movie.)

Anyway, Gilbert makes several fascinating points, namely:
- Happiness is a matter of deciding to be happy with what you have
- While there are certainly better and worse states of the world, we overestimate the difference in how we will feel in those different states
- Regret, and the fear of regret, destroy happiness, so lock yourself into decisions and don't look back
- Synthetic happiness is the same as the "real thing".

One clear idea that comes out of all of this is that ambition is at odds with being happy. If you are satisfied with what you have in life, and decide that no matter how things turn out you will be fine, it's tough to go through the sort of pain and self sacrifice that the truly ambitious are willing to go through to get whatever they want.

The other idea that comes out of this is that there is more to life than happiness. Contentment with what you have does not drive progress, be it economic, scientific, or cultural.

I don't know what you're optimizing when you try to balance happiness with ambition, or the progress that flows from it.


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