Day 30: The Surprising Science of Happiness

Can we happy if we don’t get the things we want? Harvard professor and the author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, Dan Gilbert tells us we have a psychological immune system which lets us feel truly happy even when life doesn’t go as planned.

Over the last two million years the human brain has tripled in mass. In evolutionary terms, this is huge. The brain not only got bigger; it gained new structure. Major gains include the frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex. Amongst its many functions, the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for experience simulation. Everyone has this ability. Ben and Jerrys don’t have liver and onion ice-cream because they made some and tasted it; we can sit in an armchair and imagine how it would be disgusting! Using this ‘experience simulator’, we can also synthesis the emotion of happiness. Most of us just don’t believe it.

Gilbert proposes that synthesised happiness is every bit as worthwhile as ‘natural’ happiness (also known as getting what we want!) He has the scientific data to prove it. A study of people following major life traumas shows that if it happened more than three months before, it has no impact whatsoever on happiness. Paraplegics and lottery winners have the same levels of happiness after one year. Quotes from people who’ve been subject to everything from natural disasters to marital breakdown can often testify to this. Take the words of Moreese Bickham, 78 years old when he was released from a Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit; “It was a glorious experience.” Or there’s Pete Best, the first drummer from the Beatles; “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

On hearing such statements, most of us roll our eyes and think, ‘Well, you must not have wanted it.’ We discredit the idea of the psychological immune system in favour of the natural happiness model. Gilbert says this refusal to believe is mainly economic. A shopping mall full of Zen monks is hardly going to be profitable, as none want ‘stuff’ enough.

More research points to the fact this psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck. This is the difference between dating and marriage, freedom and incarceration. Unfortunately, we continue to maintain too much choice, not knowing that boundaries to our longings and the constant chasing of experiences is actually making us unhappy. When we overrate our fears and longings, we make bad decisions. Unbounded ambition leads to lying and cheating to get what one wants; unbounded fear leads to recklessness. Yes, we should have preference which leads us to one future over another. But these preferences shouldn’t be overblown. In the words of Shakespeare;
‘Tis nothing good or bad; But thinking makes it so.’


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