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Lions Roar : January 2007
Presentism Just one of the ways we misjudge the future HISTORIANS USE the word “presentism” to describe the tendency to judge historical figures by contempo- rary standards. As much as we all despise racism and sexism, these isms have only recently been considered moral turpitudes, and thus condemning Thomas Jeffer- son for keeping slaves or Sigmund Freud for patron- izing women is a bit like arresting someone today for having driven without a seat belt in 1923. And yet, the temptation to view the past through the lens of the present is nothing short of overwhelming. As the president of the American Historical Association not- ed, “Presentism admits of no ready solution; it turns out to be very difficult to exit from modernity.” The good news is that most of us aren’t historians and thus we don’t have to worry about finding that particular exit. The bad news is that all of us are futu- rians, and presentism is an even bigger problem when people look forward rather than backward. Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. The way we feel right now (“I’m so hungry”) and the way we think right now (“The big speakers sound better than the little ones”) exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist; thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagina- tion in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes. Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now. This fundamental inability to take the perspec- tive of the person to whom the rest of our lives will happen is the most insidious problem a futurian can face. ♦ From Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House, Inc. © 2006 by Daniel Gilbert. in that, because, of course, nobody can guarantee you happiness. They can only guarantee that you are alive and free to pursue it. My synonym for the pursuit of happiness is “living.” I really think that’s what life is all about. Some people will object, be- cause to them “happiness” stands for a kind of bovine content- ment, the pleasures of the flesh. Surely, life must be about some- thing more than happiness! Well, I don’t think it is, because we can achieve happiness through some of the most sublime things, the things that we admire and cherish, rather than things we indulge in, like chocolate and a good orgasm. Those are sources of happiness too, but we know from data that altruistic acts, for example, are more powerful sources of happiness. That raises the interesting question about the role of science in this. What does science have to tell us about happiness? Well, how do we figure out what makes us happy? Grandma told us a lot of things about happiness, and culture tells us a lot of things about happiness. Charlie Brown says happiness is a warm puppy. The Beatles say it’s a warm gun. Everybody has an idea about what happiness is. What science can do for us is help separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the myth—as dispassionately as possible. I would have been delighted to dis- cover that money brings happiness, because I have money. On the other hand, that’s not what the data says. By the same token, I wasn’t pleased to see that children don’t bring happiness, be- cause I have a child. ➢ SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 79