This article was based on the TED Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” by Dan Gilbert
Holidays and Happiness
As we head into the holiday season, many people are fraught with emotions. There’s a certain air of joviality at this time of year, but there’s also an additional burden of stress that comes with the parties, gift giving, and other expectations. Instead of feeling like a victim of circumstance, what if you could choose how you manage your emotional state? Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, says our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong.
Our Brain as an Experience Simulator
Over the past two million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass and gained new structures like the frontal lobe. Particularly, a part called the pre-frontal cortex justifies the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull. One of the most important functions of the pre-frontal cortex is its job as an experience simulator.
Pilots practice in flight simulators so that they don’t make real mistakes in planes. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do, and that no other animal can do quite like we can.
Let’s see how your experience simulators are working by contemplating two different futures. One of them is winning the lottery, and the other is becoming paraplegic. Just give it a moment of thought and decide which you would prefer.
Interestingly, there are data on these two groups of people and how happy they are. The fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.
Research has revealed something called the impact bias, which is the tendency for your mental simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than they really are. From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have. A recent study showed that major life traumas that happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, have no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
The reason is because happiness can be synthesized. Humans have the equivalent of a “psychological immune system.” This is a system of largely non-conscious cognitive processes that help us change our views of the world so that we can feel better about our situation.
We synthesize happiness, yet we think happiness is a thing to be found. Synthesizing happiness can be done by convincing yourself you didn’t really want the job you didn’t get, or you didn’t have much in common with the person you just broke up with. When we hear someone synthesizing their own happiness, we typically smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call “natural happiness.” Natural happiness occurs when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is inferior.
Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for. All of us have this psychological immune system, a capacity to synthesize happiness, but some of us do this trick better than others. It turns out that freedom, the ability to make up your mind and change your mind, is a friend of natural happiness because it allows you to choose what you would most enjoy. The freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.
Most people don’t know they have the ability to create synthetic happiness, and not knowing this can work to our supreme disadvantage. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, puts it this way, “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse for the horror of our own injustice.” In other words, yes, some things are better than others.
We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. However, when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, and to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, and we’re thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless, and we’re cowardly.
The lesson from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very happiness we are constantly chasing when we choose our experience.