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by Allison Aboud Holzer

It seems obvious: a Freshman in college is trying to decide between majoring in Econ or Biology and asks current seniors in both majors for their perspectives, right? A couple is cover-mid_tradedeciding between purchasing a home in two different neighborhoods and asks current neighbors in both about how they like the area, right? A career switcher is interested in the biotech and pharma industries and interviews people working in both before deciding which to pursue, right? These are definitely the right ideas, but, unfortunately, few people actually practice them when faced with challenging decisions.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Daniel Gilbert, discusses this dilemma in his book called Stumbling on Happiness, and recently published new research on the topic. Two new studies found that we are much more accurate predicting future happiness about a college major, neighborhood, or job industry, if we simply seek out neighborly advice. Unfortunately, however, few believe this to be true; therefore, few actually do this. Instead, we have a tendency to make decisions based on what we think will make us happy (called “mental simulations” or “forecasting”). The result is frequent inaccuracy about future happiness.

Gilbert’s article quotes the 17th century writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld, who suggested that “Before we set our hearts too much upon anything, let us first examine how happy those are who already possess it.” His research supports this hypothesis, which seems like common sense. So, why don’t we do this?

The simple answer is that we humans like to believe that we are unique. We believe so strongly in individual differences that we discount others’ experiences and expect ours to be different. Gilbert suggests two reasons why others’ experiences are not so different than our own: 1) emotional reactions are instinctual even when specific beliefs and opinions differ (both pro-life and pro-choice people will feel angry when their beliefs are threatened by the passing of a new law), and 2) the people in our social networks tend to share similar values and personality traits. Nevertheless, “when we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbor’s experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess.”

But since seeking neighborly advice is the best way to make a decision, this Bliss Tip asks you to take a leap of faith this year when making big decisions by asking others about their experiences. Not willing to act on faith alone? Try it out with smaller decisions first, like where you’d like to try dinner tonight!

  • Gilbert, D.T., Killingsworth, M.A., Eyre, R.N. & Wilson, T.D. (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science (323), 5921.

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