In one of the most viewed TED Talks of all-time Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert reviewed the key points from his international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness and  tackled the science behind what makes us happy. Today, Ignitia reviews these findings. 

The Role of Our Pre-Frontal Cortex

Dr. Gilbert begins by stating that over the past 2 million years the human brain has nearly tripled in mass. According to Dr. Gilbert, when brains triple in size they also gain new structures. One of the reasons our brains got so big is because we gained a whole new portion of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex.  According to Dr. Gilbert, one of the most important things the pre-frontal cortex does is to act as an ‘experience simulator’. Dr. Gilbert says this feature of our brains allows us to have experiences in our minds before we try them out in real-life. This is a feature none of our ancient ancestors had, and put us at the forefront of the animal kingdom. To emphasize the effect of this brain function, Dr. Gilbert suggests Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t have a liver-and-onions flavor of ice cream because we can imagine what that would taste like and say ‘yuck’ ahead of time.

Misunderstanding What Makes Us Happy: Impact Bias

When it comes to predicting future happiness in terms of this function, Dr. Gilbert invited the audience to imagine which future they might be happier with: winning over $300 million in the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. Obviously the entire audience laughed at the suggestion, however, surprisingly Dr. Gilbert’s findings suggest that one year after their newfound fortunes, both lottery winners and paraplegics were equally happy with their lives.

Such finds suggests that we may not understand as much as we think we will about what really makes us happy. The cause of such misrepresentation is what Dr. Gilbert calls the ‘impact bias’. An impact bias is the tendency for people to overestimate the effect and outcome will have on our future condition. According to Dr. Gilbert, in study after study, major occurrences in people’s lives – such as losing or winning an election, losing or gaining a romantic partner, losing or ganging a desired job – have far less impact on our long-term happiness than most people suspect.

Our Psychological Immune System

According to Dr. Gilbert’s finding, if a major life trauma happened more than three months ago, it has essentially no impact on a person’s happiness whatsoever. According to Dr. Gilbert, this is because happiness can be synthesized. We all have what Dr. Gilbert calls a ‘psychological immune system’. According to Dr. Gilbert, this is system of cognitive processes that helps us change our views of the world so that we can feel better about the situation in which we find ourselves. We synthesize happiness, and yet we think happiness is a thing to be found.

In order to back up this assertion, Dr. Gilbert offers three examples of individuals who have terrible situations yet, in spite of it all, claim to be extraordinary happy. These individuals included a man who missed out on investing in McDonald’s, a man who was falsely imprisoned for 37 years, and Pete Best, the man who was kicked out of the Beatles before the band gained popularity. Even in this situation, Pete Best said he was happier now than if he would have been in the Beatles.

Synthetic Happiness Vs. Natural Happiness

According to Dr. Gilbert however, when we hear of such cases where people claim to be even happier for having had misfortune befall them we tend to roll our eyes and doubt the sincerity of their statement. In our society we tend to have a belief that synthetic happiness is inferior to natural happiness. According to Dr. Gilbert, natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want; synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want.

According to Dr. Gilbert, in our society we have the belief that synthetic happiness is the inferior kind. However, Dr. Gilbert asserts that synthetic happiness is every bit as real as the happiness we stumble-upon when we do get everything we want.

A Case-Study by Claude Monet

In order to demonstrate this, Dr. Gilbert presents an experimental paradigm used to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness for those Dr. Gilbert calls ‘regular folks’. In order to illustrate this, Dr. Gilbert points to a historic study in which participants were asked to rank six Monet prints from most-to-least preferred. After ranking the prints, the participants were then given the choice to take either their 3rd or 4th most liked print home. Obviously all participants chose their 3rd most liked print. However, when participants were asked to re-rank the prints sometime later, in almost all cases, the print they owned was then ranked higher than it’s original order, while the one they passed on was ranked even lower than originally stated. This bias toward synthesized happiness has been repeated time-and-time again for over the past fifty years.

Proof Synthetic Happiness is Real Happiness

To take this case even further however, Dr. Gilbert and his colleagues tested this same study in the hospital with a control group of amnesiacs. When Dr. Gilbert and his colleagues returned to ask the patients to re-order the prints – even though the amnesiacs could not recall which of the prints they currently owned – they still preferred to the poster they owned to the same margins of the control patients, even though they had no idea they actually owned it.  According to Dr. Gilbert, this means they truly changed their ‘affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster.’ In other words, they weren’t just saying they liked it because they owned it – they didn’t even know they own it.

The Role of Choice in Happiness

According to Dr. Gilbert, ‘freedom, the ability to make-up your and change your mind, is the friend of natural happiness. This is because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one you might most enjoy.’ However, according to Dr. Gilbert, this same freedom to choose, this ability to make-up and change your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness. Meaning, the psychological immune system works best when we are totally without choice. In other words, when we have no choice in a given situation, we find a way to be happy with the outcome we are given.

A Harvard Study in Support of These Findings

According to Dr. Gilbert, people don’t know this about themselves, and not knowing this can work to our supreme disadvantage. In support of this assertion, Dr. Gilbert sites a study he conducted at Harvard where he created a black-and-white photography course and invited students to learn how to use a camera. He then asked them to take 12 pictures of their favorite things from around Harvard, then asked them to choose their top-two favorites. From these two, Dr. Gilbert then asked the students which of the two final prints they’d like to give-up to the department as evidence of the class project.

According to Dr. Gilbert, half of the students were then told if they changed their minds about the picture at any time in the next four days, they could swap the one picture out for the other. However, the other half of the students were told they had to make a final decision right there on the spot because the other picture would be sent immediately to England.

From there, the student from each group were asked to predict how much they thought they were going to like their choice. The results found that the students who had the ability to reverse their decision thought they would like their selection only slightly more than the students who were not given the ability to change there mind. However, the actual findings found that the people who were stuck with their decision liked their choice very much. Conversely, those who had the opportunity to change their mind were found not to like the picture they chose as much at all. According to Dr. Gilbert, this is because ‘The irreversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness.’

In order to complete the Harvard study, Dr. Gilbert then brought in a whole new group of Harvard students and told them ahead of time they could either choose to be in the group where they would be stuck with the picture, or in the group which would have the ability to change its mind. What Dr. Gilbert’s study found was that 66% of students said they preferred to be in the study where they would have the chance to change their mind. In other words, 66% of the students choose to be in the group that would ultimately lead to them being deeply dissatisfied in their choice.

We Don’t Understand What Makes Us Happy

According to Dr. Gilbert, this is because most people do not understand the conditions under which synthetic happiness is readily achieved. To illustrate this point, Dr. Gilbert quotes the great economist Adam Smith in saying, ‘The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seem to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another… Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others; but none of them can 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 the remorse for the horror of our own injustice.’’

In other words, we should obviously have preferences that will lead us into one future over another, however when pursuing those preferences cause us undo injustice or hardship, we are at risk. According to Dr. Gilbert, when our ambition is bounded, it leads us to working joyfully. However, when our ambition is unbounded, it may lead us to lie, cheat, steal, or hurt others in order to attain what we believe to be our desired outcome. Likewise according to Dr. Gilbert, when our fears are bounded, we are prudent, cautious, and thoughtful. However, when our fears are unbounded and overblown, we may become reckless and cowardly.

A Final Word of Advice

Thus, according to Dr. Gilbert, the lesson he wants to leave us with, based on his 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 commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.” That commodity being, happiness.