I’ve been reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (for some of the key arguments, see this TED.com video), and thinking about the idea that our level of satisfaction depends on our expectations.
Gilbert quotes a startling experiment that shows how important our expectations can be. One group of participants was promised a reward (e.g. £3) for their participation, but then told that there was a mistake and they would receive less (say £2). The second group were promised a lower amount (e.g. £1) and received exactly what they were promised. A rational argument would say that those receiving £2 were still better off and so should be happier than those receiving £1. But in practice the first group were more unhappy than the second – because they didn’t receive what they had expected to receive. One group thought themselves £1 better off than nothing, the others felt they were £1 worse off than £3.
It’s one of those ideas that starts to apply itself to all sorts of areas of my life and thinking.
One of the most difficult aspects of my current work situation is that people feel that they were promised more (by my predecessor) than I am able to give them. So unfortunately what I am able to offer, although generous if considered objectively, is deeply unsatisfying to them because it’s less than they were expecting.
It’s also relevant to relationships. Before my last relationship, I was getting along fairly happily as a single person, having been single for several years. Yes, I wanted a partner, but my life was interesting and fulfilling and overall I was happy. During the relationship I became used to all sorts of things that were better than in my single situation – having my self-image reinforced by compliments and attention, opportunities to discover new things, someone who was always there (by mobile if not in person) when I wanted to talk, and all sorts of other benefits. I didn’t need all those things – I’d got on perfectly happily without them. But their sudden withdrawal was a shock. And while I knew that I could be happy as a single person, it took me some time to get back to that state of mind, because I had expected that the relationship level of comfort would continue. Again, it was harder to cope with the withdrawal of something than it was to cope with its absence.
It also occurs to me that this may be why some religious people view the life of an atheist as necessarily miserable. If you have been promised, and come to believe, that you will meet your loved ones again, it must be difficult and painful to accept the idea that you will not. Whereas if you always felt that death was final, you simply don’t feel the same level of disappointment, because you never expected anything more. Obviously the belief in heaven can help to make the initial grief easier to bear, and will continue to do so so long as you continue believing that. But there’s no real evidence for that belief, so it’s a risky basis for comfort. If that belief ever falters, dealing with the withdrawal would almost certainly be far more painful than it would have been to deal with the initial grief without this apparent consolation.
My experience of having never believed in heaven is therefore vastly different from the experience of someone who has believed in heaven and has ceased to do so. But Gilbert also argues strongly that we also tend to strongly underestimate how well our coping mechanisms help us deal with disappointments like this. Over time, the de-converted seem to get used to the idea that there is no heaven, that they will not see their loved ones again. But a religious person trying to imagine what it would be like not to believe in heaven, is likely to completely overestimate the impact of losing their faith, let alone the experience of a life-long atheist like myself.
Somewhere in the blogosphere I came across someone describing how angry they felt with someone who told a child that there was no Santa Claus, feeling that shattering the child’s illusions was cruel. But I was mystified why they were angry at the person that shattered the illusion – rather than the person who set up the inevitable disappointment by telling that child the original lie that there was a Santa Claus. The experience of living in a world without Santa Claus is completely different depending on whether we were told that a world with Santa Claus was possible.
So what does this mean in practice? It should be reasonably straightforward to avoid making promises that can’t be kept in a work situation, and I’ve definitely had a very clear lesson in why this is so important. It’s harder in relationships – because the nature of a long-term relationship is the hope that it will continue, and the mutual commitment to trying to do so. But still, I think being aware of this will help in future relationships – to know that the horror with which the mind contemplates being single from within a relationship is not a realistic perception of the actual experience of being single. And finally this understanding might come in handy in trying to explain to religious people why the non-religious life is not, in fact, as dark and miserable as they have been told.
The mind does work strangely at times – but it does help to get to know its peculiarities!