TED Radio Hour
7:32 am
Fri February 14, 2014

How Does Misfortune Affect Long-Term Happiness?

Originally published on Thu March 6, 2014 2:17 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Simply Happy.

About Dan Gilbert's TEDTalk

We're doomed to be miserable if we don't get what we want — right? Not quite, says psychologist Dan Gilbert. He says our "psychological immune system" lets us feel truly happy even when things don't go as planned.

About Dan Gilbert

Psychologist Dan Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he runs the Hedonic Psychology Laboratory. He's the author of Stumbling on Happiness. In the book, Gilbert argues that our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong. In the same way that optical illusions fool our eyes, Gilbert says, our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy.



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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And speaking of tiny spaces...

DAN GILBERT: Right now, I'm sitting in a very small room on the Harvard University campus filled with electronica.

RAZ: This is Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert again, and we brought him into that small studio to ask him about his life's work.

GILBERT: What really brings happiness about has become a question that we have put in the hands of poets and philosophers for millennia, and then recently we've asked scientists to answer questions about what brings human happiness.

RAZ: So, like, you study the Super Bowl of scientific subjects.

GILBERT: Of course. Why would I write a book about something that wasn't the single most important topic in the world?

RAZ: Here's the open from Dan's TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: When you have 21 minutes to speak, 2 million years seems like a really long time. But evolutionarily, 2 million years is nothing. And yet in 2 million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the one-and-a-quarter-pound brain of our ancestor here, habilis, to the almost 3-pound meatloaf that everybody here has between their ears. And one of the main reasons that our brain got so big is because it got a new part called the prefrontal cortex. Now what does a prefrontal cortex do for you that should justify the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull in the blink of evolutionary time?

Well, turns out the prefrontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is it is an experience simulator. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. This is a trick that got our species out of the trees and into the shopping mall. Now all of you have done this. I mean, you know, Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver and onion ice cream, and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went yuck. It's because from - without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavor and say, yuck, before you make it.

Research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, have revealed something really quite startling to us, something we call the impact bias, which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly, for the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact 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. In fact, a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

RAZ: So I'm, like, totally surprised that this idea that, like, just three months after some kind of traumatic experience, with just few exceptions, it has no impact on happiness. I mean, I cannot imagine somebody, you know, like, ever finding real happiness again after that.

GILBERT: That's because your imagination, like mine, like everyone else's, is extraordinarily limited. It's not because people don't get over these events, and if by get over, we mean end up having happy productive lives. They do. In fact, the vast majority of people who experience any kind of tragedy or trauma will ultimately return to their baseline or very close to their baseline in what seems like relatively short order. We don't recognize that we are as resilient a species as we turn out to be. What's interesting to me as a psychologist is, why don't we know this about ourselves?

RAZ: Yeah.

GILBERT: Why is this remarkable talent hidden from our view? Why are we all surprised when people who lose a child or lose a job or lose their vision, a year or two later, are doing pretty darn well?

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, yes. Right. Why? Like...

GILBERT: Well, I think there might be two reasons. First, the processes that enable us to be resilient and recover are often invisible. There are things our minds are doing behind the scenes. And because we don't see our minds doing them, we don't know that we're capable of it. The other possibility that philosophers and psychologists bandy about is that it's important that we not know this about ourselves.

Just imagine if you knew that losing your marriage or losing your job would eventually be OK. Would you take precautions to not let any of those things happen? Maybe we are built to be strangers to ourselves so that we do the very things that evolution would have us do.

RAZ: But how did we get that way? Stay with us. More on the science of happiness with Dan Gilbert in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So Dan Gilbert, as we just heard, studies happiness. And his big idea about it - an idea that's surprisingly simple - is that we are all actually hardwired to more or less be happy. And why is that? Here's more of Dan from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: Because happiness can be synthesized. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in 1642, I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles. Fortune hath not one place to hit me. What kind of remarkable machinery does this have in his head?

Well, it turns out it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all of us have. Human beings have something that we might think of as a psychological immune system, a system of cognitive processes - largely non-conscious cognitive processes - that help them change their views of the world so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves. Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine. Unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, we really don't. If happiness can be synthesized, I mean, is it real? Like, is it real happiness?

GILBERT: Well, it's real. Synthetic doesn't mean not real. It means it was synthesized. The word synthetic describes the origin of something. So synthetic nylon is nylon. It's not an imaginary stocking. It's just manufactured in a laboratory. Similarly, real and synthetic are not kinds of happiness. They're sources of happiness. They tell us whether a person's happiness was generated by the events that happened to them or by their reframing of those events. Both of these are legitimate ways to achieve happiness. And the kind of happiness we achieve, as far as psychologists can tell, isn't qualitatively different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found. Now you don't need me to tell you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect. Though, I'm going to show you some experimental evidence as a challenge to myself, since I say this once in a while in lectures. I took a copy of the New York Times and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness. And here are three guys synthesizing happiness.

The first one is Jim Wright. Some of you are old enough to remember he was the chairman of the House of Representatives, and he resigned in disgrace when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich found out about a shady book deal he had done. He lost everything. He lost his money. He lost his power. What does have to say all these years later about it? I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and almost every other way.

What other way would there be to be better off? Vegetabley? Minerally? Animally? He's pretty much covered them there. Moreese Bickham is somebody you've never heard of. Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released. He was 78 years old. He'd spent 37 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit. He was ultimately exonerated at the age of 78 through DNA evidence. And what did he have to say about his experience? I don't have one minute's regret. I was a glorious experience. Glorious? This guy is not saying, well, you know, there were some nice guys, they had a gym. It's glorious, a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience. Oh, and then finally, you know, the best of all possible worlds.

Some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best, who was the original drummer for The Beatles, until they, you know, kind of, like, sent him out on an errand and snuck away and picked up Ringo on a tour. Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed - yes, he's still drummer. Yes he's a studio musician. He had this to say, I'm happier than I would've been with The Beatles. OK. There's something important to be learned from these people, and it is the secret of happiness. Here it is, finally, to be revealed. First, accrue wealth, power and prestige, then lose it. Second, spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can. And finally, never ever join The Beatles.

RAZ: I still can't believe that Pete Best is really happier that he didn't join The Beatles. But I guess I have to believe him.

GILBERT: Well, not only should we trust him when he says he's happier that he didn't join The Beatles, we should really trust him when he says he's happy. And I suspect that if we could compare his happiness to the happiness that Ringo Starr experiences or Paul McCartney experiences, we wouldn't find many differences.

RAZ: But what is it about these people that you mentioned? Like, what is their secret?

GILBERT: Some people are more capable of doing this work than others. All of us are capable of it sometimes and not capable of it at other times. But the point is the amount of happiness or unhappiness we feel is in part in our hands. The in part part of that sentence is remarkably important. It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be. And it has to do with how we frame events. We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way.

RAZ: To what extent do things like marriage or falling in love or getting a promotion or - to what extent do those things have an impact on how happy we're going to be?

GILBERT: They have an extremely large impact for an extremely brief amount of time. When you think of something like winning the lottery or falling in love or something bad like losing your eyesight or getting fired from your job, you're probably imagining the early moments of those episodes. Well, indeed, the day you get fired from your job or the day you'd meet the girl of your dreams are very special days. What it turns out to be the case is that the happiness that these events induce doesn't last that long.

RAZ: I mean, how? What explains that?

GILBERT: Well, a number of things explain it. One of them is just the nature of emotion. Happiness is an emotion. It's a feeling, and the human brain isn't built to sustain a single feeling over the long-term. Look, think of it this way. Your emotions are a compass. They're telling you which direction to go in. When you feel bad, you turn left. You try something different in your life. When you feel good, you keep on marching in the direction you're going. That's what emotions are for. Now what good would a compass be if it were perpetually stuck on north? It turns out that human beings need their emotions to both be elicited, but then to come back to baseline. And happiness is one of the emotions that does exactly that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: The bard said everything best of course, and he's making my point here. But he's making it hyperbolically. 'Tis nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. It's nice poetry, but that can't exactly be right. Is there really nothing good or bad? Is it really the case that gallbladder surgery and a trip to Paris are just the same thing?

No, that seems like a one-question IQ test. They can't be exactly the same. In other words, yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. The lesson I want to leave you with 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 commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: So I guess you're right. I mean, there really is no secret to happiness.

GILBERT: There is no secret. It takes work, and it isn't hard work. But it's work that you have to put in religiously over time. Somebody who spends a few minutes a day playing with their children and really being present, that's not going to make you instantly happy the day you do it. But over months and years of practice, this will change your life.

RAZ: Are those some of the things that you do?

GILBERT: Yes, I do some of these things myself. For example, every day as I walk to work, I remind myself how grateful I am that I'm walking. A few years ago, I couldn't walk because I had a back injury that really took me out of circulation. And not a day goes by now when I put one foot in front of the other, I think, walking, this is a really good.

RAZ: Psychologist Dan Gilbert. His talk is called "The Surprising Science of Happiness." And you can watch it at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.