Sunday, August 7, 2011

Beware of the Attack Turtle

I arrived at the lake house last week to see a sign posted in the window by the front door. It read, "Beware of the Attack Turtle." I had seen this sign before, but it had been posted on the shed up the driveway to the house. However, as my eyes drifted from the warning onto the stuffed, life-size sea turtle next to the sign I saw what my mother had created. One could not help but laugh--it was the kind of cognitive disequilibrium that is at the heart of much of all humor.

But what was much more interesting even than the attack turtle guarding the lake house was my mother's absolute delight in creating this tableau and then watching other people's reaction to it. It was not just funny to her, it brought her great delight. This made me think about some studies by Dan Gilbert I had recently been thinking about in relationship to the question, "What makes us happy?" Much of Gilbert's research has to do with "affective reasoning"--how well we forecast our future emotional states. What Gilbert's research has found is that it is not the "big things"--winning the lottery, getting into the college of our choice, taking our dream vacation--that actually make us happy. In short, the big good things don't effect us as much as we think, but the big bad things--relationships ending, not getting into the college of our choice, not ever taking a vacation--don't effect as much as we think they will either.

My mother's sign got me thinking again about how the little things that happen everyday, the things that delight us in the moment, are the things that create a disposition of happiness. We look for happiness in the big things that we conjure up in our future, objects that will make us happy. But happiness never seems to be found in an object for every long; and our ability to forecast our own emotional future seems to be pretty dismal. What my mother had done was generate a relationship with something in the present; she generated an experience. And she generated a memorable one at that. If Gilbert's findings are that we are particularly bad predictors of what will make us happy in the future, I think the realization that creating experiences everyday that delight us (and others) may make us more able to happy in the present. That is something to dance about, I think.

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