You can be wrong about what you like, and you often are

Meta: I’m not say­ing any­thing new here. There has been a lot of re­search on the topic, and pop­u­lar books like Stum­bling on Hap­piness have been writ­ten. Fur­ther­more, I don’t think I have ex­plained any of this par­tic­u­larly well, or pro­vided par­tic­u­larly en­light­en­ing ex­am­ples. Nev­er­the­less, I think these things are worth say­ing be­cause a) a lot of peo­ple have an “I know what I like” at­ti­tude, and b) this at­ti­tude seems pretty harm­ful. Just be sure to treat this as more of an ex­plo­ra­tory post than an au­thor­i­ta­tive one.

I think that the fol­low­ing at­ti­tudes are very com­mon:

  • I’m just not one of those peo­ple who en­joys “deeper” ac­tivi­ties like read­ing a novel. I like watch­ing TV and play­ing video games.

  • I’m just not one of those peo­ple who likes healthy foods. You may like sal­ads and swear by them, but I am differ­ent. I like pizza and french fries.

  • I’m just not an in­tel­lec­tual per­son. I don’t en­joy learn­ing.

  • I’m just not into that early re­tire­ment stuff. I need to main­tain my cur­rent lifestyle in or­der to be happy.

  • I’m just not into “good” movies/​mu­sic/​art. I like the Top 50 stuff.

Imag­ine what would hap­pen if you re­sponded to some­one who ex­pressed one of these at­ti­tudes by say­ing “I think that you’re wrong.” Often times, the re­sponse you’ll get is some­thing along the lines of:

Who are you to tell me what I do and don’t like? How can you pos­si­bly know? I’m the one who’s in my own head. I know how these things make me feel.

When I think about that re­sponse, I think about op­ti­cal illu­sions. Con­sider this one:

When I think about that re­sponse, I think about the fol­low­ing di­a­log:

Me: A and B are the same shade of gray.
Per­son: No they’re not! WTF are you talk­ing about? How can you say that they are? I can see with my eyes that they’re not!

I un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion. It feels like they’re differ­ent shades. It feels like it is stupidly ob­vi­ous that they’re differ­ent shades.

And if feels like you know what you like.

But some­times, some­times your brain lies to you.

The image of the squares is an op­ti­cal illu­sion. Neu­ro­scien­tists and psy­chol­o­gists study them. And they write books like this about them.

The ques­tion of know­ing what you like can be a he­do­nic illu­sion (that’s what I’ll de­cide to call it any­way). Neu­ro­scien­tists and psy­chol­o­gists study these illu­sions too. And they write books like this about them.

They have found that we’re ac­tu­ally re­ally bad at know­ing what will make us happy. At know­ing what we do, and don’t like.

Some quotes from The Science of Hap­piness:

  • “One big ques­tion was, Are beau­tiful peo­ple hap­pier?” Et­coff says. “Sur­pris­ingly, the an­swer is no! This got me think­ing about hap­piness and what makes peo­ple happy.”

  • His book Stum­bling on Hap­piness be­came a na­tional best­sel­ler last sum­mer. Its cen­tral fo­cus is “prospec­tion”—the abil­ity to look into the fu­ture and dis­cover what will make us happy. The bad news is that hu­mans aren’t very skil­led at such pre­dic­tions; the good news is that we are much bet­ter than we re­al­ize at adapt­ing to what­ever life sends us.

  • The rea­son is that hu­mans hold fast to a num­ber of wrong ideas about what will make them happy. Iron­i­cally, these mis­con­cep­tions may be evolu­tion­ary ne­ces­si­ties. “Imag­ine a species that figured out that chil­dren don’t make you happy,” says Gilbert. “We have a word for that species: ex­tinct.

That last one was pretty pow­er­ful, wow.

I think that the im­pli­ca­tions of this are all pretty huge. We all want to be happy. We all want to thrive. We make thou­sands and thou­sands of lit­tle de­ci­sions to this end. We de­cide to have fried chicken for din­ner, and that hav­ing sal­ads isn’t worth the effort, de­spite what­ever long term health benefits. We de­cide that video games are a nice, fun, re­lax­ing way to de­com­press af­ter work. We de­cide that work­ing a cor­po­rate job is worth it be­cause we “need the money”.

All of these de­ci­sions shape our lives. If we’re get­ting them wrong, well, then we’re not do­ing a good job of shap­ing our lives.

And if we’re bas­ing these de­ci­sions off of our in­tu­itions, ac­cord­ing to the pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy re­search, we’re prob­a­bly screw­ing up a lot.

So then, I pro­pose that we ap­proach these sorts of ques­tions with more cu­ri­os­ity.

The first virtue is cu­ri­os­ity. A burn­ing itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pur­sue truth. To feel the burn­ing itch of cu­ri­os­ity re­quires both that you be ig­no­rant, and that you de­sire to re­lin­quish your ig­no­rance. If in your heart you be­lieve you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your ques­tion­ing will be pur­pose­less and your skills with­out di­rec­tion. Cu­ri­os­ity seeks to an­nihilate it­self; there is no cu­ri­os­ity that does not want an an­swer. The glory of glo­ri­ous mys­tery is to be solved, af­ter which it ceases to be mys­tery. Be wary of those who speak of be­ing open-minded and mod­estly con­fess their ig­no­rance. There is a time to con­fess your ig­no­rance and a time to re­lin­quish your ig­no­rance.

And with more hu­mil­ity.

The eighth virtue is hu­mil­ity. To be hum­ble is to take spe­cific ac­tions in an­ti­ci­pa­tion of your own er­rors. To con­fess your fal­li­bil­ity and then do noth­ing about it is not hum­ble; it is boast­ing of your mod­esty. Who are most hum­ble? Those who most skil­lfully pre­pare for the deep­est and most catas­trophic er­rors in their own be­liefs and plans. Be­cause this world con­tains many whose grasp of ra­tio­nal­ity is abysmal, be­gin­ning stu­dents of ra­tio­nal­ity win ar­gu­ments and ac­quire an ex­ag­ger­ated view of their own abil­ities. But it is use­less to be su­pe­rior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physi­cist in an­cient Greece could not calcu­late the path of a fal­ling ap­ple. There is no guaran­tee that ad­e­quacy is pos­si­ble given your hard­est effort; there­fore spare no thought for whether oth­ers are do­ing worse. If you com­pare your­self to oth­ers you will not see the bi­ases that all hu­mans share. To be hu­man is to make ten thou­sand er­rors. No one in this world achieves perfec­tion.

You can be wrong about what you like, and you of­ten are.


(My grandpa used to read this to me all of the time when I was younger. And he still bugs me about it to this day. It’s cool that I’m fi­nally start­ing to un­der­stand it.)