“Take your business to the next level,” Bernie Clark, EVP of Charles Schwab, said on Friday as he closed a successful Schwab Impact conference in Boston and thanked keynote speakers Mellody Hobson, Liz Ann Sonders, Henry Paulson, Greg Valliere, Gerd Leonhard, Chris Hughes and Biz Stone.
Clark then introduced the final keynote speaker, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006).
“Even when you get exactly what you want, you’re not always happy,” Gilbert said.
Humans, he noted, have an ability no other animal has: we can use our imagination to predict how happy or unhappy an action will make us. But, he said, it turns out that such a prediction is not always accurate. What we think will make us happy often is not what actually will—and, when unfortunate things happen, we can rationalize them and “find a way to see them as the best,” so that we are happy now instead of in the future.
When we imagine the future we don’t imagine all of the details. Gilbert's example was California. People from California say they are happy. Those not from California say they’d be happy there, too: they imagine the surfing, the Beach Boys music, but not the traffic or earthquakes. Therefore, he said, "What you don't imagine often matters as much as the things you do."
Next, he told the conference crowd, "the brain resolves ambiguity—it rationalizes” circumstances so they are not so painful. “Ambiguous rejection by one person—a zero score, well, you can say 'I’m a zero.' Or, 'The judge is an idiot. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot!' So, because the judge is an idiot—it doesn’t hurt so much." But rejection by a team of judges is “unambiguous rejection because they can't all be idiots.”
"In the future we will live in the present," Gilbert said, and find a way to be happy with whatever setbacks we have had, no matter what may have befallen us.
In the quest for happiness, Gilbert noted, our mothers may say “meet a nice girl, get a job that fulfils and have children” because those are the predictors of happiness. "Yes, marriage is a source of happiness," Gilbert asserted, and happier people find it easier to get married. Happiness is
an attractant and a happy marriage boosts happiness at least six years into the marriage—and that goes for men and women.
However, divorce boosts happiness, for a while, anyway, if people have been unhappy—and that also goes for both sexes.
Money's Marginal Utility
Money also boosts happiness, Gilbert said, but it has a declining marginal utility.
In other words, money makes you happy, especially when you don't have much. So if you go from a salary of $10,000 to a salary of $100,000, that is a big difference, and it makes you happier because you can buy better shelter and more creature comforts.
But from $100,000 to $1 millionthere’s less difference. Once basic needs are met, people generally "spend money badly," Gilbert noted, so the happiness factor levels off.
Engage in 'The Now’
Gilbert then offered a preview of a study about "the now" that will be out in about two weeks.
“People report being happiest when they are engaged in the now," he said. "Spending money on someone else makes people happier than buying something for themselves.”
His suggestion about how to find and enjoy the now? “Next time you’re in Starbucks, when you pay for your coffee, buy the coffee for the person behind you! it will make you feel happy for a couple of hours.”
Children and Chocolate
“People with children are slightly less happy than those without, especially when they are living in the same house," Gilbert said.
He joked that the findings were hard to believe based on his own experience. "These data are about somebody else," he said, but acknowledged that it is expensive to raise children and that "the more it costs in time, blood, sweat and tears," the more happiness something brings you. In addition, Gilbert argued, "Children crowd out our other sources of happiness—but can reduce net happiness because it becomes your only source of happiness."
Gilbert concluded with the thought that humans selectively remember events not as they actually were but as highs and lows. He made the analogy of spending time with a small child—which may be tedious for the grown-up who has to keep telling them to stop hitting their brother and don’t do this or that—who momentarily looks up with a chocolate-covered face and says, “I love you as much as I love chocolate.” That’s what you remember—and that becomes a spectacular day.
Read about Condoleezza Rice's speech about finance and politics at AdvisorOne.com.