Secrets of Wellbeing Series — Part 3: Future happiness? Why we get it so wrong.

Photo by Venkane
Let’s imagine that you find an ancient lamp, give it a rub – and out pops a genie. “You can wish for three things which will make you happy,” he booms.

What would you wish for?

I’m sure that if I met a genie, I’d make some great choices! You too?

Well, we might both get it wrong.

According to Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, what we would use when answering the genie’s question is part of the brain called prefrontal cortex. It is an experience simulator. Human beings can imagine experience. Just think back to the last time you braced yourself in the dentist’s chair or browsed a travel brochure: We can taste the experience before we have it.

Let’s test our experience simulator and see how accurate it is. I’ll use a question that Gilbert once asked his audience: “What would make you happier, winning Lotto or becoming a paraplegic?”

No contest! When faced with these two options for happiness, we wouldn’t exactly choose to become a paraplegic, right?

Research shows that lottery winners and paraplegics – one year after the event – are equally happy!

My experience simulator reported that I would be happy in the one situation and unhappy in the other. But I was wrong. The thing is that our experience simulator is faulty and we really don’t have a clue about what will make us happy. Why not?
This is the question that Daniel Gilbert pursues in his research.

The reason why our experience simulator is inaccurate, according to Gilbert, is because we have the ability to synthesize (or create) happiness. Gilbert calls this our psychological immune system and here is how it works:

We have an innate ability to change our view of the world so that we can feel better about the conditions we find ourselves in. This creating or synthesizing of happiness is a natural and subconscious process.

Gilbert differentiates between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ happiness. ‘Natural’ happiness’ is what we feel when we get what we want. ‘synthetic’ happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want.

Imagine for a moment that you are in your seventies. You have spent the last decades in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. At last DNA evidence proves your innocence and you are released. What do you feel when you look back on those many lost years in prison?

This happened to Moreese Bickham who spent 37 years behind bars in a US penitentiary before being released when new evidence showed his innocence.

After being release, he was asked by a reporter, “How do you feel about your time in prison?” Moreese answered: “I don’t have one minute of regret. It was a glorious experience!”

A ‘glorious experience’?

Research shows that losing our job, failing an exam, losing a partner, have far less impact on our experience of happiness than we expect them to have.

Why? Because happiness can be synthesized. That is, our mind can produce happiness.

Gilbert’s term ‘synthetic’ sounds as if that kind of happiness were not the real thing. But it is.

Synthetic happiness is the power to use our mind in order to change how we experience life.

An interesting point is that some circumstances are more conducive for producing synthetic happiness than others. Our psychological immune system works best when we are totally trapped! (I’ll be taking up the theme of freedom versus happiness in the next installment of this series).

Here’s an interesting bit of research:

Gilbert designed an experiment in which photography students at the end of a course had to either relinquish one of their two favourite photos at once, or could deliberate for four days over which one to give away. The question bugging Gilbert was: which of the two groups would ultimately be happier with their choice?

This experiment replicates situations we all experience in life. Sometimes choice seems wide open; at other times there is little or no choice and we have to live with what we have.

Which situation makes us happier? What do you think?

It turned out that the group that had to relinquish one photo on the spot liked the photo they kept a lot better than the one they had to give up – even days, weeks and months afterwards. In contrast, those who had the choice, didn’t really like the photo they finally chose – even after a long time. Here is what Gilbert concluded:

Freedom, the ability to make up your mind and change your mind, is the friend of natural happiness but the enemy of synthetic happiness.

Later Gilbert followed on with the experiment to see whether we are good at predicting what makes us happy.

He chose students at random and offered them a place in two different photography courses. They were told that in course A they would have to relinquish one photo immediately at the end of the course, whilst in course B they would be able to deliberate for four days to find which photo they would like to keep. 66% chose the second option. That is, 66% chose the option that would make them deeply dissatisfied with the picture they kept!

Just imagine – when choosing a happier outcome, 66% got it wrong!
(Maybe that explains why there are so many divorces…)

Here’s a summary of Gilberts research:

  • Whatever happens to us in life only affects our feeling of happiness in the short term;
  • We mistakenly think that we can ‘find’ happiness, when we actually ‘synthesize’ or create happiness in the mind;
  • We’re hopeless at predicting what might make us happy in the future.

I reckon that this has implications on how we make decisions in life, don’t you?

What are your thoughts on this?


Relevant links:

This post was written by Mary Jaksch

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  1. This is fascinating! I had heard the lottery winner vs. paraplegic thing before, and I know the research supports it, but I still can’t imagine it being true for me. I’d still have to choose the former over the latter. I do believe in creating happiness instead of finding it to a large extent, but not 100%.

    Let’s say that someone does believe their happiness is determined purely by their mind. How does such a person live their life? Would they not make a distinction between helping people and hurting people because they’re perfectly happy either way?

  2. Mary Jaksch says:

    @ Hunter
    I agree, the fact that paraplegics and lottery winners report the same level of happiness one year on is mindboggling.

    Your second point is interesting and complex. It includes two very different questions:
    a) How would someone who believes their happiness is determined by their mind live their life;
    b) Would such a person not care whether they help or hurt people because he/she would be happy either way?

    I’ll take stab at answering but I’d love to see answers from others so that we can all gather a fuller picture here.

    To a) When I read about that piece of research, I immediately felt a sense of relief and relaxation. I thought, “I don’t have to get all decisions right!” This is because I tend to be happy and I can rely on that fact – whatever may happen. So, my sense is that the more we understand that we make ourselves happy, the more accepting we become of what life offers, and the more relaxed we can live our life. I’d be concerned though if someone took this to mean that whatever happens is ok – even if it was a life of being abused or violated.

    To b) My take is that someone who doesn’t care whether they help or hurt people could be classed as a psychopath, i.e. he or she would have no ability to feel empathy. I would guess that psychopaths aren’t particularly happy people. I don’t quite see how ‘happiness is in the mind’ would turn us into psychopaths. I think happiness is not an individual thing. We are all in it together and if I make others unhappy, my happiness decreases.

  3. Linda Rigsbee says:

    A few years back, when I was older and had realized that money doesn’t bring happiness, I was pondering that age old question, if I was granted 3 wishes from a genie. I came up with the thought that I would like one of those wishes to be to eliminate the word hate from all languages. I have also pondered what the downside of that would be but I know in my heart why that was one of those 3 wishes! As Leonard Cohen aptly put in his song “The Future” Love is the only engine of survival.

  4. As a fellow Buddhist you will probably not be surprised at my wishes:-

    1. To have the full and complete enlightenment that the Buddha had.
    2. To bring all beings to the full and complete enlightenment that the Buddha had.
    3. To have three more wishes: Genie’s can be tricky critters! 🙂

    “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
    Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night.

    I would say that most of us are unskilful at answering the question “what is happiness.” I would say that this is why we are not always happy. So the trick is in learning those skills that make us happy. Which is cunningly like saying “in order to win at football, you need to score more goals than the other team”, but not saying how!

    Hmmm, maybe I just should stick to rubbing genies’ bottles…?

    Personally, I am happy (ahem) that Buddhism has the answer I seek. But even the Buddha admitted that this is not an easy choice, nor one for everyone.

  5. Olivier says:

    I indeed heard about this and saw a video that showed the graphs. You wouldn’t have a reference for those by any chance?



    PS Great series of articles you wrote. I immediately subscribed to your feed.

  6. Mary Jaksch says:

    @ Linda
    Welcome, Linda! Thank you for reminding us that ‘love is the only engine of survival’.

    Yes, love is the only thing that may stop the world from slowly disintegrating into warring factions. And it is the one thing that will ultimately be the one factor for each one of us which makes the difference between a fulfilled and an empty life, or a happy or unhappy life.

  7. Mete says:

    Something occurs to me when reading your summary points Mary. The results indicate that we are hopeless at knowing what will bring us happiness in the future, hopeless at knowing the true nature of our current happiness levels, and are always perfectly capable of completely recolouring our past experiences in terms of happiness – as in the case of the man saying that his 37 years of inprisonment were “glorious”. In other words, we don’t have a clue!

    So, if we don’t have a clue, how can we possibly draw results, let alone conclusions, from any experiments about comparitive happiness levels? 😉

    Also, be as it may that a year after the fact both paraplegics and lottery winners had apparently left the novelty factor of their situations behind and returned to some equilibrium state of happiness, I’m sure that that initial year was vastly different in terms of happy experiences for the two! If I won the lottery tomorrow I would be very soon drinking pina coladas on a tropical island somewhere for a few weeks of mid-winter escape; if I became paraplegic I would be very soon lying in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of me, with nothing to do but think about every one of my life plans which was just blown…

    Well, scepticisms aside, I certainly resonate with those conclusions about happiness; I too feel that, come what may, I have some knack for extracting hope and happiness from even the darkest, grimiest situations in life, and that it has far far less to do with what’s happening to me and far more to do with cunning self-regulation of thought patterns!
    I also resonate with making constant faulty predictions about happiness. It makes me think of that typical saying of men/women: “women/men: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em!”. Ain’t it always like that?!

  8. Mary Jaksch says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mete. You always seem to add depth to the discussion.

    One thing is important: there is no absolute measure for happiness. The way researchers measure happiness is by asking for self measurement. For example, someone might say I’m about a on a 1 to 10 scale of happiness.

    One of the interesting things I’ve been reading is that we can only imagine change from one state to another. For example, we can imagine checking our lotto ticket and that jaw-dropping moment when the numbers spell out the big win.

    Just as we can imagine lying in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out everywhere. And in our mind’s eye we can see a concerned doctor bending over us, saying that we are unlikely to regain the use of our legs.

    What we can’t imagine is the ongoing future.

  9. Mary Jaksch says:

    Thank you for your openness, Ian. You obviously have a strong aspiration for awakening. That’s precious.

    One thing worries me, though. It looks as if you connect your aspiration with a desire for happiness – or did I get that wrong?

    The problem is that awakening is not a silver bullet that brings nothing but happinesss. Ultimately, feelings of happiness or unhappiness are surface experiences. Awakening is about discovering our true nature; it transforms our experience of life on a fundamental level.

  10. Hi, Mary,

    I can’t seem to reply to a reply, so will have to add a new comment.

    “One thing worries me, though. It looks as if you connect your aspiration with a desire for happiness – or did I get that wrong?”

    That depends on what you and I mean by happiness(!), being serious. And desire, for that matter. I think here there’s a danger we can get entangled by words, since what I’m seeking is not “mundane happiness” in the sense of “Oh! What a great day today, I’m feeling cheerful” or “Wow! This food’s *really* great!” or even “I have found the secret to lasting and eternal cheerfulness.” All of these things are rooted in samsara and avidya, it seems to me; the first because it’s predicated upon a temporary state of mind (such as “getting out of the right side of the bed in the morning), the second upon a things, and the third upon some vague impression of a general idea of something I haven’t really defined!

    If I can’t say what I really mean, it’s because I don’t know how to talk about the hide of an elephant, being a blind man. In any case, what happiness is it if I’m happy but anyone else is not? The nearest thing I’ve found written, recently, that is suggestive of what I’m trying to get at is this. In the Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, on the Prajna-paramita Sutras, it quotes a scholar’s summary of them.

    Edward Conze: “The thousands of lines of the [sutras] can be summed up in the following two sentences. 1) One should become a Bodhisattva (or Buddha-to-be), i.e, one who is content with nothing less than all-knowledge attained through the perfection of insight for the sake of all beings. 2) There is no such thing as a Bodhisattva or as all-knowledge or as a being or as the Perfection of Insight or as an attainment. To accept both these contradictory facts is to be perfect.”

    If I know anything at all of this it is this.

    Seeing into anatman (and sunyata) shows that what I think of as “me” (or anyone or anything else) in the mundane or everyday sense is an incomplete seeing or ‘knowing’ (the Pali root avijja means “not knowing completely”, not the usual translation), so what happiness could be “mine”? Or as anyone’s for that matter. Or as happiness…

    Seeing into anitya shows that any happiness unskilfully predicated on the “atman” quality of me or other people or things or thoughts and so on in samsara is doomed. Without even mentioning karma created by either skilful or unskilful action (thought, speech and bodily acts).

    I can talk of compounded phenomena, these unreliable things like temporary states of my mind, food, silly ideas of permanent happiness, or happiness, or mine, or Bodhisattvas and beings to be liberated for that matter.

    But I can’t find any words to talk of [insert non-words of the Buddha’s choosing]. Except that apparently, in the mundane sense, enigmatic lines of the Heart Sutra: “Form is Void, and Void is Form [and so on]”.

    Meanwhile I’m returning to planet Earth to watch my mind for signs of the arising of attachment to “happiness”!

  11. Hersh says:

    Mary great post once again! well, I always advocated the success of arrange marriages in India as opposed to marriages in West. Here, we get to think about it , while in arrange marriages we are given a few choices but we have to make decision for life. Divorces ar literally unknown there. The choice made at the time of arranged marriage is ‘pukka’ decision with no ‘exit’ clause.

  12. Mary Jaksch says:

    I asked Daniel Gilbert for details of the article on the relative happiness of paraplegics and lotto winners. He kindly sent me these details:

    “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? By P Brickman, D Coates, R Janoff-Bulman – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978.”

    Here is an interesting talk given by the Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, called The Pursuit of Happiness. He gives more details of the lotto/paraplegic research:

  13. Mary Jaksch says:

    @ Ian
    Yes, I see – you are referring more to joy than to happiness. I’m reminded of Deb’s lovely definition in her comment to ‘Authentic Happiness’ (Part 1 of Secrets of Wellbeing):
    “Joy is a deep knowing of oneself and the reality of my connectedness with all others.”

    I love your point that happiness is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’ because we are all interconnected!

  14. Mary Jaksch says:

    Actually, the fact of arranged marriages did flash through my mind when I wrote this article.

    I could well imagine a wise parent arranging a good marriage. I suppose there might be problems if there are issues other than the wellbeing of the couple, such as family politics?

  15. Hi Mary —

    Thanks for telling so many people about the research that Tim Wilson and I have been doing for the last decade. And I’m glad to see you enjoyed my book, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS.

    The Buddhist community may also be interested in an interview I did with TRICYCLE in 2005. Subscribers will find it here:

    Best wishes — DTG

  16. Mary Jaksch says:

    @Daniel Gilbert
    Thank you for visiting us! I read the your article in Tricycle. It’s very interesting. For those of you who don’t subscribe to Tricycle, here are some quotes from it by Daniel Gilbert:

    We keep assuming that because things aren’t bringing us happiness, they’re the wrong things, rather than recognizing that the pursuit itself is futile—that regardless of what we achieve in the pursuit of stuff, it’s never going to bring about an enduring state of happiness.

    Human beings have two basic motives that conflict with each other: to understand everything and to be happy.

    It’s surprising things, uncertain things, things we don’t fully comprehend that seem to bring us the greatest and longest-lasting happiness.

    I would say there are many experiences in which almost all the joy is in memory and anticipation and very little is in the experience itself. George Loewenstein, another happiness researcher, is a mountaineer. A point he makes about mountaineering is that you look forward to it for months and talk about it later for years, but the fact is, while you’re doing it, it’s hot and sweaty and uncomfortable.

  17. I like the last part of the last quote: ‘… the fact is, while you’re doing it, it’s hot and swaety and uncomfortable’. It seems to me the most realistic approach and experience of life, before and after storytelling. But I so much like stories … Maybe what we describe and experience as hapiness is just our reaction to real hapiness, which always seems to be unaware and thus will and cannot not be experiencend, while the focus is on other things.

  18. Mete says:

    Ah what a fantastic concept! That real happiness can’t be experienced because it’s unaware, and our concept of happiness is just the post-processing of that! Eh, it’s so abstract but I like it! 🙂

    Well using “hot and sweaty” as a metaphor reminds me of an experience I had while on a retreat with you Mary, a few years ago now; we were doing a workshop on working with sounds and I remember hearing a chainsaw buzzing angrily in the background. At first I shied away from the sound as it’s intrusive volume and lack of apparent musicality wasn’t pleasing to my ears. But as I concentrated more on the sound, I started to notice the quality, rhythms, and texture of it more and more until it became something quite delightful. I mean, it was still the same sound, and it still had an uncomfortable volume level and lack of musicality, but through concentrating on it I forgot about my initial impulsive dislike of the sound and started to listen to it withut judging, and really found a sense of joy in it…

    So actually I think the “hot and sweaty” can bring just as much happiness, if not more, in the present as in the later story mode, it just takes a shift of awareness & concentration…

  19. Yin says:

    Hi everyone, this is my first time commenting on this site, but I susbcribed to the feeds long time ago. I find all the posts very interesting and helpful. I agree with most of the things you said on the post and on the comments. Last year I had an awful experience, losing 3 people in my life that I loved dearly, I thought I couldnt find happiness anymore, but I did find it, inside of me, in the small things that happened to me everyday, on meeting new people that will never substitute the ones I lost, but that I wouldn’t have a way to meet if my loved ones wouldn’t have died. What I always try to think is that “Everything happens for a reason” , I do believe that my loved ones souls are still with me and now everytime I meet a new person, I make a new friend, I try to enjoy it more, I make every minute count and that is something I never did before.

  20. @Yin
    I’m happy that you have emerged from your silence, Yin and are offering us all your wisdom. This comment really touched me. What a hard time you have come through!
    It’s heartening to see how you are emerging from that dark time of loss and have allowed your suffering to be a great teacher.

    In the next few weeks my Ebook “From Storm to Stillness: How to Weather a Life Crisis” will be ready. I hope that it will help you.

  21. nora says:

    happiness is considered s aprey haunted by life . some think that they own it but they actually are not and others woll not discover the lived anew life only at the moment of saying farewell to life . when you talk about happiness irememberthis advice ”noone can predict the future ,and noone can chnge the past , all we feel is the present moment we live now so feel it and say to yourself i can laugh from my heart tasting it in my tongue and that heavenly moment of happiness will come…

  22. Trent M. says:

    Wow. An intensely thought-provoking article. Very insightful.
    As if even one of your posts hasn’t been. 😛
    Synthetic happiness. Very interesting. As long as this artificial happiness is just as “real” and effective as natural happiness is, I’m ready to be as FAKE as I can get!
    Could you share any examples for creating synthetic happiness?
    Not that I cannot imagine any myself, but I’d like to see your thoughts, or anyone else involved in the discussion. :3

  23. Carlo Ami says:

    Very worthy and well-said. We tend to opt for the short-term—and often artificial or synthetic–happiness. For a lot of people, in my experience, life seems so chaotic that the short-term “fix” of tobacco, alcohol, distracting/numbing television or fantasy novels. Its tempting to look for happiness everywhere but within, but that is the place to really find it.

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