Today is Towel Day, where fans around the world celebrate the works of beloved author Douglas Adams, a master of witty prose and observational humour. Consider his description of money:
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
Adams was right to highlight the perceived link between money and happiness. Many people dream of the life they could lead if they won the lottery, a world of mansions, fine restaurants, and first-class travel. But few consider the costs. These fineries could lead to enjoyment overload, compromising our ability to savour life’s simpler pleasures, whether it’s a walk on a sunny day or the taste of a bar of chocolate. This idea of wealth as a double-edged sword is widely held and while it’s easy to suggest that it springs from jealousy, a new set of experiments supports the idea.
Jordi Quoidbach from the University of Liege showed that richer people aren’t as good as savouring everyday pleasures than their poorer counterparts. Even the mere thought of money can make us take mundane joys for granted. Normal people who were reminded about wealth spent less time appreciating a humble bar of chocolate and derived less enjoyment from it.
How would you fancy a holiday to Greece or Thailand? Would you like to buy an iPhone or a new pair of shoes? Would you be keen to accept that enticing job offer? Our lives are riddled with choices that force us to imagine our future state of mind. The decisions we make hinge upon this act of time travel and a new study suggests that our mental simulations of our future happiness are strongly affected by the chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries signals within the brain. Among its many duties is a crucial role in signalling the feelings of enjoyment we get out of life’s pleasures. We need it to learn which experiences are rewarding and to actively seek them out. And it seems that we also depend on it when we imagine the future.
Tali Sharot from University College London found that if volunteers had more dopamine in their brains as they thought about events in their future, they would imagine those events to be more gratifying. It’s the first direct evidence that dopamine influences how happy we expect ourselves to be.
When we learn about new experiences, neurons that secrete dopamine seem to record the difference between the rewards we expect and the ones we actually receive. In encoding the gap between hope and experience, these neurons help us to repeat rewarding actions.
This was clearly demonstrated in 2006, when Mathias Passiglione showed that people’s ability to learn about rewards could be improved by giving them a drug called L-DOPA. It’s a precursor to dopamine, a sort of parent molecule that can increase the concentrations of its offspring. Passiglione asked volunteers to learn links between different symbols and different financial rewards. He found that under the influence of L-DOPA, they were better at picking the symbols that earned them the most cash.
Passiglione’s study was important, but his volunteers were forced to make a fairly artificial choice between two virtual symbols in a constrained lab setting. What happens in real life, when choices are complex and our decisions hinge on our ability to think about the future?
To answer that, Sharot recruited 61 volunteers and asked them to say how happy they’d feel if they visited one of 80 holiday destinations, from Greece to Thailand. All of the recruits were given a vitamin C supplement as a placebo and 40 minutes later, they had to imagine themselves on holiday at half of the possible locations. After this bout of fanciful daydreaming, they had to take another pill but this time, half of them were given L-DOPA instead of the placebo. Again, they had to imagine themselves in various holiday spots.
The next day, Sharot brought the volunteers back. By this time, they would have broken down all the L-DOPA in their system. She asked them to choose which of two destinations they’d like to go to, from the set that they had thought about the day before. Finally, they rated each destination again.
By the end of the experiments, they perceived their imaginary holidays to be more enjoyable if they had previously thought about the locations under the influence of L-DOPA (while vitamin C, as predicted, had no effect). The implication is clear: think about the future with more dopamine in the noggin and you’ll imagine that you have a better time.
Critically, this wasn’t because they were feeling happier in the actual moment. All the recruits filled in questionnaires about their emotional state every time they took a pill and these revealed that the dopamine boost didn’t actually affect the present state of mind. All it did was change their predictions of their future state of mind. These happier predictions affected their choices too – more often than not, they chose to travel to destinations that they had envisioned through dopamine-tinted goggles.
How dopamine has its way is unclear. Sharot suggests that it could boost how much we want something when we imagine it. Its effects could also tie into its role in learning. When we imagine the future, this chemical strengthens the link between what we think about and any feelings of enjoyment we might gain from it. This model fits with the fact that some neurons in the striatum become more active the more pleasure we expect from an experience.
Either way, it’s clear that our knowledge of dopamine’s myriad roles is just beginning. Broadening that knowledge is important for understanding our own behaviour, which, as Sharot says, “is largely driven by estimations of future pleasure and pain”.
Reference: Current Biology 10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.025
More on Sharot’s work and dopamine:
When the going gets tough, thousands of people try to boost their failing self-esteem by repeating positive statements to themselves. Encouraged by magazine columnists, self-help books and talk-show hosts, people prepare for challenges by chanting positive mantras like “I am a strong, powerful person,” and, “Nothing can stop me from achieving my dreams.” This approach has been championed at least as far back as Norman Vincent Peale’s infamous book The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952.
But a new study suggests that despite its popularity, this particular brand of self-help may backfire badly. Ironically, it seems to be people with low self-esteem, who are most likely to rely on such statements, who are most likely to feel worse because of them. Joanne Wood from the University of Waterloo found that people with low self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” to themselves felt worse than people who did neither.
The effect may be counter-intuitive, but the theory behind it is very straightforward. Everyone has a range of ideas they are prepared to accept. Messages that lie within this boundary are more persuasive than those that fall outside it – those meet the greatest resistance and can even lead to people holding onto their original position more strongly.
If a person with low self-esteem says something that’s positive about themselves but is well beyond what they’ll actually believe, their immediate reaction is to dismiss the claim and draw even further into their own self-loathing convictions. The positive statements could even act as reminders of failure, highlighting whatever gulf someone sees between reality and the standard they set for themselves. In short, someone could repeat “I’m a lovable person” but they’d really be thinking “I’m actually not” or “I’m not as lovable as I should be.” Statements that contradict a person’s self-image, no matter how rallying in intention, are likely to boomerang.
Want to know how much you’d enjoy an experience? You’re better off asking someone who has been through it, even if they’re a complete stranger, than to find out information for yourself. This advice comes from Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University, who espoused it in his superb book Stumbling on Happiness. Now, he has found new support for the idea by studying speed-daters and people receiving feedback from their peers.
In the first study, he found that female students were better able to predict how much they would enjoy a speed-date if they listened to the experiences of strangers than if they make their own assessments based on available information. Likewise, the second study found that people more accurately foresaw their reactions to criticism when they knew how someone else had reacted than when they had the information for themselves.
This interesting result masks a second one of equal importance – people don’t believe that this works. In both cases, most volunteers felt that they would be better off relying on their own counsel than to lean on the opinions of others. In some ways, that’s not surprising – it is, after all, a fairly counter-intuitive idea. But it also comes on the back of a huge amount of evidence that we humans are really very bad at predicting what will make us happy.
Time and again, psychological studies have found that we overestimate how happy we will be after winning a prize, starting a new relationship or taking revenge against those who have wronged us. We also overrate our disappointment at bad test results, disability or failure to progress at work. Try as we might, we consistently fail to forecast our own emotional reactions, and we even fail to accurately remember our past experiences to be used as guides.
Gilbert says that the main reason for this is an inability to accurately imagine future events. We can close our eyes and try to picture ourselves in the future but we focus on the wrong things, we predict that our emotions will last longer than they do, and so on. Some scientists have tried to improve things by training people to mentally time-travel with more accuracy but these attempts have been largely unsuccessful.
Gilbert advocates a different ethos – use other people as living simulators. In most cases, you can find someone who has been through the same experience, and they can act as a mental surrogate. Having actually lived through the experience you’re trying to picture yourself going through, they are resistant to many of the mistakes we naturally make in our predictions.