Pinsker: One of the premises of your book is that people may have a sense of what will make them happy, but they approach those things in ways that don’t maximize happiness. Could you provide an example of that disconnect?
Raghunathan: If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: “I want to be the best professor there is,” or something like that.
There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it's very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they're not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it's a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it's not really relevant to the particular field.
And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you're going to get used to it and you're going to want another big bump. And you'll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that's not a very sustainable source of happiness.