Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness

Watch a fascinating presentation by Dan Gilbert, talking about natural and synthetic happiness:

Before pilots start flying real planes, they learn how to do that using simulators. Similarly, we all can predict reactions to various things, simulating them in our mind – it’s pre-frontal fortex in our brain that enables this experience. These simulations can be very misleading though. If you are shown pictures of lottery winner and paraplegic, you would be sure that lottery winner would be far happier, but as it turns out, year after they are equally happy with their lives. Explanation to this mistake is provided by so-called impact bias – tendency for the simulator to work badly, make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they are in reality.

Dan Gilbert says that humans have something like “psychological immune system“, we are able to synthesize happiness. Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted; synthetic happineszs is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. Contrary to popular belief, it is as real and enduring as natural happiness. Dan Gilbert brings examples from New York Times, one of them features Moreese Bickham, exonerated immate, who after being released from the prison at the age of 78, said: “I don’t have one minute’s regret, it was a glorious experience”. This is what we call synthetizing happiness.

Dan Gilbert continues his presentation with providing various examples supporting his thesis, among which free choice paradaigm can be found. Subjects are asked to rank objects from most to least liked, then they have a choice between #3 and #4 objects which they will own, vast majority chooses #3. After some time they are asked to re-rank objects, liking for owned object increases and liking for unowned object decreases, what is interesting is that also people with amnesia follow this pattern. We make ourselves like object we have more and the one we couldn’t have less.

As Adam Smith said: “The great source of human life misery and disorders of human life seems to arrive from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another…” – it is true that some things are better than others, but we should never let either our longings or our worries to become overblown.