AHRI CEO Lyn Goodear discusses the choices we make to be happy with psychologist Daniel Gilbert.
Lyn Goodear: Through your research, have you observed any differences in how people from different generations make happiness a priority?
Daniel Gilbert: Most of my research is on people in young to middle-adulthood. With that said, I think it’s certainly the case that the current generation, at least of Americans, is more explicitly concerned with making choices that will bring happiness and fulfillment than we were a few generations ago.
The ability to say, “What would I like to do? What would make me happy?” is a great luxury that many people in the Western world have the opportunity to ask. That was a question that was surely not asked 200 years ago by anyone but a king.
Suddenly, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, large numbers of people started getting up in the morning and asking, “Who would I like to be?” I think the burden of having to invent ourselves is a large one.
There’s a great reward to it; it’s a luxury, but it’s also a bit of a burden. We have to ask questions like, “What will make me happy?” I think in that sense, yes, the current generation prioritises happiness to the extent that they are asking questions about it.
LG: I’ve had a chance to live in the US for a number of years and was very impressed by the largely optimistic spirit of the American people at the time. I just wonder how your theory translates to cultures that are maybe not naturally disposed towards optimism.
DG: It’s fun to ask about cultural differences because they’re exciting and interesting to consider. It’s why we travel: we love to see differences between our culture and the place we’re going to.
It’s very easy for that interest to eclipse the bold fact that, actually, we have much more in common than we are different. This is certainly true in terms of happiness. In any culture, people will agree 99 per cent on what the things are that create happiness.
LG: Do you think workplace rules hinder good decision-making or enable productivity and creativity?
DG: I think the first problem with rules is that we think about them in terms of their benefits, and we rarely think about their costs, and especially about the hidden costs of other good things we [could] do with the time and money.
The second problem with rules is that they are like very bad guests; they move in, but they never move out. It’s very easy to put rules on the books, but very rarely do we sit down and go through our rules and just get rid of a few.
As a result, organisations almost always start out with a few rules and end up with more, and then more, and then more.
That means over time, there are a lot of rules, and rules take time and money away from other things we want to do. We really ought to prune the set of rules as often as we add to it.
LG: Given our illusory perspective of the future, what can be done to help create cultures, and nurture and build people to be resilient to circumstances that are beyond control or beyond the control of an individual within the culture?
DG: Many people are indeed working on the problem of how to inculcate resilience, how to make us bounce back. What strikes me as a scientist is although there’s always room for improvement, the most surprising thing about scientific findings is that people are already much more resilient than they themselves realise.
Data shows that people by-and-large pick themselves up by their bootstraps and soldier forward. We do very well in almost every kind of negative situation. I’m not saying we couldn’t do better, I do believe there’s room for improvement.
LG: With the substantial growth in technology, there is a move to teleworking, where people can work in other places and still be connected to the work environment, but would you say there’s potential risk in terms of people’s happiness?
DG: The single best predictor of a person’s happiness is their social relationships: how many friends and family members they have and how close they are to those people.
To sit at home and not have any interaction with anybody would be a bad idea. On the other hand, most people who are home-working are having interactions, through the internet or through the telephone with customers or coworkers.
Where I fall down on that is that if a company is able to afford employees the ability to work from a remote location, it’s pretty much up for them to decide if it’s going to increase or decrease their happiness.
Daniel Gilbert gave a keynote presentation at the 2013 AHRI National Convention. The 2015 AHRI National Convention will take place in August in Melbourne. To view the program and to register your interest visit the AHRI website.