When I have a problem to solve, I become a muller. A ruminator. I try to think of every possible outcome and how I will deal with it. I imagine elaborate scenarios in my mind, down to little details, I script conversations and I develop plans… Plan A, Plan B, etc., in an attempt to understand and be in control of what will happen so that I, and anyone else involved, will be closer to the seductive win-win. But doing this takes up a heck of a lot of creative energy and thought time and, while it might be part of this Type A leaning disposition of mine, it probably doesn’t get me any closer to the win-win– to happiness. In fact, there’s scientific proof that it doesn’t.
Harvard social psychologist, Dan Gilbert (also known as Dr. Happiness), has spent his life researching happiness, specifically as it relates to personal choice and the often unexpected outcomes of life. He calls the type of ruminating and predicting that we do affective forecasting. After a series of events that tried his ability to cope, the death of a mentor, the end of a marriage and academic issues with his son, it occurred to Gilbert that while his whole understanding of what had just happened implied he should be devastated, he was actually coping and “moving on.” He wondered if it’s possible that our human predictions, our affective forecasting, of how we will respond to extreme stress could be inaccurate? And, if this is true, why? Why do we spend so much time trying to predict how we will feel about something that hasn’t happened yet and why are we often so wrong when we do?
In the past 2 million years, the human brain has tripled in size. Over this time, inside these big brains of ours, a new part developed–the prefrontal cortex–which would separate us from any other living creature. Simply put, the prefrontal cortex is an experience simulator. It’s what’s I’m using while involved in my Plan A and Plan B exercises and it’s also what’s being used when, for example, we look at a menu and decide what we want to order because we can imagine what is being described accurately enough to know whether or not we would want to eat it.
The problem with the simulator is that it works rather badly, being subject to something called the impact bias. In a fascinating TED talk, Gilbert illustrates this point by comparing two case studies: the person who wins the lottery and the person who becomes paraplegiac. Given the choice between choosing these two outcomes, nearly everyone would choose the lottery over the loss of their legs, however, when studied one year later, these two case studies actually reveal individuals with equal levels of happiness. In a Times interview, Gilbert states that humans, in general, tend to experience an emotional baseline of 75 on the 1-100 scale of personal happiness. The impact bias, then, basically ensures that good outcomes will not actually be as good as we think they are and, perhaps more importantly, that the bad outcomes we stress over will not affect us as profoundly as we fear. In fact, the human tendency is to always assume greater impact from things that are forecasted to have a negative outcome. We err on negativity. But, Gilbert says that we humans do not understand the extent to which we are wildly resilient.
“Because,” says Gilbert, “Happiness can be synthesized.” That’s right, when it’s missing, we make it! And we don’t even know we do it. He likens it to a psychological immune system whereby humans, primarily unconsciously, change their views of the world in order to make themselves feel better about the world in which they live. Natural happiness is what we get and is the kind that is more or less stumbled upon; synthetic happiness is what we make out of what we get. Synthetic happiness is as real as natural happiness and it generally turns out better than we could have imagined.
The experiment that Gilbert uses to show how synthetic happiness is created is one where subjects were shown six art prints by Claude Monet. Participants were asked to arrange the art works in the order they liked them best, from one to six. After they ranked the art, they were told that they would receive one of the prints as compensation but that only (their) choices numbers 3 and 4 were available, and that they could only have one. As one would predict, all subjects chose their third choice over their fourth because, of course, they liked it better. Later, when asked to rank the same six art works again, number 3 shifted to the number 2 position and number 4 to the fifth position. What they got was now perceived as better while what they did not was perceived as lesser.
What’s the takeaway? In a short video on Big Think, Gilbert gives a great synopsis of his theory of happiness and how it relates to the trendy “present moment living” movement and “mindfulness,” which he regards as the mindsets of mosquitoes and toasters.
We are remarkable in our ability to adjust and adapt to almost any situation but we seem not to know this about ourselves and so we mistakenly predict that good things will make us happy for a long time and bad things will slay us and, by and large, both of these things are untrue. But forecasting for the future is how we live happy lives… our ability to look into the future and think about what will make us the most happy is the way that we get to a present that pleases us. I don’t see these things as being at odds, I see them going hand in hand.
I don’t believe that I will stop my ruminating any time soon but Gilbert’s assessment gives me pause to contemplate the ways that fear and anxiety can consume the problem-solving mind and create negativity where it need not be created. And, perhaps knowing about, and trusting in, our own capacity to navigate through the rough terrain of our lives is actually one step closer to true happiness.
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about the big picture.