Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Are We Happy?

We think we want a lot of choice in our lives. We modern folk think we are happy that we are free to have so many choices, compared to our forebears.

But what if all our choices are making us less happy? Could that really be true?

This seems to be a conclusion from a study by Daniel Gilbert on the relationship between happiness and choice.

I was watching a video of Gilbert’s TED talk, “Why Are We Happy?” In his talk, Gilbert tells us about two tests on happiness that he conducted. In the first test, he had two classes of students working on individual projects.  At the end of the session, each student had two large photographs they had to choose from.  In Class A, each student was told they could keep one photograph, and the other would be taken away, forever, no second chances. Class B had to make a similar decision, but they had a week to change their mind. Gilbert discovered that, regardless of the choice Class B made – whether they changed their minds or not – Class B was ultimately less happy with their final decision than Class A was. The class with the greater choice was less happy.

The second time that Gilbert conducts his study, he tells the students before they have selected which class they are going to take, that in one class they won’t have a chance to change their mind, and in the other class they’ll have a week to change their mind.

66% of students choose the class where they’ll be able to change their minds. As Gilbert says, 66% of the students choose the class in which they will be less happy.

Watching this video, what I saw was that the greater unhappiness of Class B was not because of too much choice but because of too much second-guessing their initial decisions. Did I make the right choice? Was that the photograph I really like the best? Maybe I should have chosen the other one. I’m going to switch back while I can. But wait, now that I have the other one, do I really like it better? Dang, should I switch back?

After watching this video I realized that I frequently second-guess the decisions I have made about what-to-do-next. As a self-employed artist/producer working from home, I have a huge amount of choice in my day. Pretty much every moment I have to figure out what I should do next. Sometimes it’s clear, as when I have a looming grant deadline. Most of the time it’s not and I have to figure it out for myself.

If I spent the morning just lolling around not really getting anything done, I would then spend time mulling and debating over whether or not I had made a mistake…was I being lazy or did I just need some quiet time to integrate things?

If I worked really hard, I’d wonder, was I getting obsessive? Did I remember to take a break? Am I going to burn myself out again like I used to?

So I conducted my own study: what would happen if I just accept whatever I have already chosen to do, leave off with the second-guessing, and just move on to the present? What if I stopped second-guessing myself? Would that reduce the occasional vague sense of dissatisfaction I experience regardless of how well things are going?

The week before I saw Gilbert’s video, I had decided that on Saturday mornings, while my husband and daughter were out at a kempo class, I would take that time to get myself into wilderness, because wilderness feeds me. Well, the day after I saw the video was Saturday. And it was pouring, drenching rain.

I spent the early morning thinking, “Oh, I don’t really want to go out in this? It’s cold and wet and I’m going to get drenched and – wait a minute, I’m second guessing myself, aren’t I?” So I went out anyway, despite my disinclination. It was of course fantastic to get into the wilds, despite the rain.

Simple, of course, but very helpful. We have more choices today than our parents did, or probably any generation before us. There aren’t a lot of tools we are given to know how to make good choices. So we second guess ourselves. I know I do. I’m going to keep practicing not second-guessing myself. As a matter of fact, I had thought this morning that I would go out and do some work in a coffee shop. But I’m writing at home. So I’m going to stop writing now and go get a coffee. Because staying here would be second guessing myself.

I feel better already.

What this has to do with art practice


(yes, I'm writing in the coffee shop now)

You write a word, paint a brushstroke, record a vocal line.  You either second guess it or you let it be. If you second guess it - if you are anything like me - you become mired in a state of indecision. If you trust yourself enough to let it be, then that stroke/word/line is followed quickly by another, and then another. You accept all the gestures that come out of you, in a kind of compost-building, as my writing partner and I call it, which you can sift through and analyze with your critical brain later.

If you are an artist and struggling with your inner critic, who is interfering with getting anything out there, who is blocking you or impinging on your creativity in any way, instead of fighting to defeat the critic, just say, “I’ll be critical of this later, all at once, when it’s all out, all the compost has been created. Right now I won’t even look at it, I’ll let it be and I won’t go back until later, when I’m done with the output phase.”

That way the critic doesn’t have a chance to interfere. I won't even look at what I’ve just done – not a single glance at it – until later, when I’m done creating the first draft/version/layer.

It’s amazing how useful that (formerly nasty) little inner critic can be when faced with a pile of steaming compost, lush with nutrients and possibilities. It can sift through and find the gems, the good bits, wash off the stuff that isn’t useable (or paint another layer on top, or save into an old draft version).

I have learned to do this with my art, already. Now I’m learning to do it with the art that is my life.

No second guessing.

Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness
Portrait of Daniel Gilbert
My painting of the woods at Harrison Hotsprings
Inner critic


  1. Wonderful! Insightful and inspiring! Thanks for this... it could really change things for me.

  2. Such gifts these musings are, Vanessa - thank you!