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

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?
Wrong!

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?

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Relevant links:

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This post was written by Mary Jaksch

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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