CAREERS PODCASTS


Dan Gilbert
Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology
Harvard University

What is the key to happiness? As we all strive for professional and personal happiness – for ourselves and our teams – we turned to Dan Gilbert for insight. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the science of happiness. And you may find his data helpful in your own decision-making.

Dan Gilbert

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Resources

• Dan’s Website

• Stumbling on Happiness

Show Notes

Mitch Zuklie:

Hi, this is Mitch with another edition of our Orrick Podcast. Today’s guest is Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the science of happiness. Dan is a bestselling author; his book on the topic has been translated into 30 languages. He’s got popular Ted Talks. Dan, I’m incredibly happy to be talking with you—especially as I think we’re engaging in an important conversation across the whole profession about the importance of wellness. It would be very interesting to know—how did you start studying happiness?

Dan Gilbert:

You know, it’s funny. It sounds like kind of an offbeat topic for a scientist to study, but just think about it—if you’re a psychologist, why would you study anything else? I mean, happiness is the reason that people do everything they do. And we all know we’re doing things all day to make ourselves happy but, if you thought about it, even the things that you don’t think of as efforts to make yourself happy really are indirectly.

That includes getting up, going to work, flossing your teeth and going to the dentist. They don’t sound like joyous events, but you are doing them in service of your own happiness and wellbeing. Even when you’re trying to make the world a better place, what do you mean by that? Well, you mean you’re trying to make it a place where there’s more happiness for more people. So, if you are a psychological scientist, I can’t really think of a topic you ought to be studying other than happiness. That’s why I study it.

Mitch:

That’s fascinating. Out of curiosity, how many other scholars do you think have dedicated themselves to focusing on the question of happiness?

Dan:

Well, I think at this point the answer would be hundreds, if not thousands. And I’m glad you used the word “scholars” because some of them are psychologists but some of them are neuroscientists, and a whole bunch of them are economists and demographers and sociologists. Thirty years ago, you could have probably put all the people who studied happiness scientifically in a single small room. Today it would be hard to have a conference and have all of them attend, even at a convention center.

Mitch:

In all the research you’ve done on this, was your mom right? Are the things you were told as a child would make you happy—financial success, marriage, children—do they actually make us happy?

Dan:

Well, mom is always right, of course. But it turns out that she wasn’t entirely right. She could have been righter about all of those things. So, for example, moms tell us we should be comfortable and earn a good living. She’s right, of course: Income and wealth both positively correlate with happiness. But what Mom forgot to mention was that the first dollar you earn buys you a lot of happiness, the second buys you a little bit less, the third a little bit less, and so on until, in very short order, you’ve pretty much gotten all the happiness out of money that you can possibly get. Marriage does tend to make people happy, but it really tends to make people happy when it’s a good marriage—when they’ve married somebody who they think of as their best friend. And then children—well, that’s where most people are quite surprised because we think of them as bundles of joy and we can’t think of anything we love or care about more. But the fact of the matter is, children are a slight negative correlative with happiness. People with children are less happy than people without them. People are least happy when their children live with them. As far as we can tell, if you hold everything else constant, children are on average a bit of a burden to their parents and they make them a little less happy. My mom definitely didn’t believe that.

Mitch:

Now, why is it then in common parlance that people describe over and over again the single most joyous thing in their life is their kids?

Dan:

Well, they’re probably right. That’s not the question to ask: “What thing brought you the greatest moment of joy?” It’s: “How does it change your life, one hour at a time, 24 hours at a time, a month at a time, on average?” And we’ve seen that people do get extraordinarily high moments of joy and satisfaction from being with their children and thinking about their children. It’s just that, overall, children are a whole lot of work. And most people aren’t very happy when they’re working. One of the things we know about children and happiness is that it varies a lot by gender, by age, by geography. So, the other answer to your question: I you know people who say, “Wait a minute, my children make me happy,” the answer is, “Yes, they might for you.” On average, they don’t for human beings, but you could be the exception to the rule. There are exceptions.

Mitch:

It’s interesting that you mentioned these differences by gender, geography and other categories. What are some of the biggest differences by gender?

Dan:

I guess the first thing I’d say is that everything we know about happiness seems to pertain to both men and women. So, it’s not like there’s one set of rules for men and a totally different set of rules for women. With that said, there are some interesting differences. For example, marriage. Traditionally in most societies, who’s dragging whom to the altar? Well, it’s women who are in a rush to get married and men who are reluctant. That seems a little ironic because, when you look at the data, men are the ones who get the biggest happiness boost from marriage. Women get much less. There’s no mystery about why—marriage turns out, in most societies, to be a lot of work for women—a lot of responsibility. Getting a husband means another person to care for. For men in most societies, getting a wife means getting an extra person to care for you. So, there are some gender differences in the data on happiness, and they’re not sanguine, by and large, if you’re a woman. I would add they bear the biggest brunt of child‑rearing, and so it isn’t a surprise that the parent who is made the least happy by the presence of children turns out to be mom, not dad. In fact, in a lot of the data, dads are getting a happiness boost from children. So, sorry to say it, but men seem to be the recipient of a lot hard work on the part of their partners, which makes marriage and children a really good deal for them—a little less of a good deal for women.

Mitch:

That is interesting. Dan, what does your research suggest about how to be happy professionally?

Dan:

The human brain doesn’t distinguish between personal and professional; home and work are just two different buildings, and it’s exactly the same brain. So, not surprisingly, the same things make people happy at work that make them happy at home. The mistake you can make when you think about what makes people happy at work is thinking that it has a lot to do with the work. You can be making hamburgers, you can be making houses, you can be selling insurance, you could be selling music—most of that is irrelevant.

What matters is who you’re working with and how they’re treating you. Human beings are the most social animal on our planet, and it’s not a surprise that our happiness is determined by our relationships with others. If you are working in a place where you feel respected and valued and part of a team that has a common purpose, I don’t even need to know what your business does to know that you probably like going to work every day.

Mitch:

We certainly think of law as a team sport—absolutely something that is not practiced alone—and a very social undertaking. What does your data tell us about how we can lead happier, more fulfilled teams and build a stronger work culture?

Dan:

It’s a little difficult to say because a team of four and a team of 400 have different rules. Law firms have different rules than investment companies. I’m not an organizational psychologist, but every organization has unique factors that would make the answer to the question, “How we can build better teams?” unique to that organization. With that said, I think the big answer is—go back to the previous question. I think that happy teams are groups of individuals who feel valued and respected in their work together. Valued and respected, you know, doesn’t just mean that you got a raise. But it’s also the way you’re listened to, whether you feel you have a say in what the team does and how it moves forward, whether other people think your ideas are worth hearing, whether you’re always the person singled out to do things the team finds the least attractive—all of these kinds of things. Long, long ago, a great rabbi was asked to stand on one leg and summarize the entire Torah. And so, he picked up one foot and said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is commentary.” I think that’s a fine rule for how teams ought to work in organizations. Whenever you are acting in some way toward a colleague, a subordinate or a superior, ask yourself: “Is this how I want to be treated?” If the answer is yes, you’re probably doing the right thing. If the answer is no, for sure you’re doing the wrong thing.

Mitch:

Dan, if I could ask a personal question, how has your research on happiness changed the way that you personally make decisions for yourself?

Dan:

Oh my gosh, it’s changed everything. I mean, if you are a psychologist and you really believe the data, how can you not go home and act on it? It’s changed in many ways. First of all, it’s made me much braver in decision‑making. The key finding was that people are just not as devastated when they make the wrong choice as they anticipate they will be, which means that for most of the choices before us, you can make an error and it’s going to be okay. So in the old days, if I were shopping for a house, I would have torn my hair out if I had any—but these days, I wouldn’t. I’ll buy the house. Likelihood is, I will come to love it. And if not, I’ll buy a different one. So, I really take the data very seriously. I suppose the best story about how this research has changed my life is that quite some time ago, we did a series of studies showing that people are happier with decisions when they can’t change their minds. When you buy something and you can never return it, the mind finds a way to be happy with it, whereas if you can return it, you keep thinking, “Maybe I should. Maybe it doesn’t fit as well as I wanted it to.” A friend of mine read this research and said to me, “You know, that’s the difference between marriage and living together. With marriage, you can’t easily change your mind and, as a result, every time your spouse does something that annoys you a little bit, you say, ‘You know what, it’s not such a bad thing, he’s got a heart of gold.’” I actually thought this research was so profound, that I went home and proposed to the woman I’ve been living with for 12 years. And now we’ve been married a very, very long time and can tell you the research was right. I love her so much more now that I can’t get away.

Mitch:

Dan, an absolute delight. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. We are grateful to you.

Dan:

My pleasure being here with you. Thanks for having me, Mitch.