You have two futures to choose from:
1) Winning the Lottery 2)Becoming a Paraplegic
Hm, not too difficult of a question.
Now comparing both, after which event would you be happier exactly one year later?
Interestingly, research demonstrates that lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.
We are victims of something called “Impact Bias“, the tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. Everyday we consider and predict the outcomes of things (the act Dr. Gilbert coins “prospection”) like elections, romance, exams, gambling, moving to a new town, new jobs, new classes, insults, weight loss, and much more .. In reality they all have significantly less intensity and duration than we expect.
In fact, a recent study demonstrating how major 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. It’s as though we’re equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.
Why? Because happiness can be synthesized.
“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Archilles; Fortune hath not one place to hit me.” ~Sir Thomas Browne
Gilbert argues that we all have what he calls a “psychological immune system” , largely non-conscious cognitive processes which alter our outlook of the world for the better and shields us from mental pain.
It kicks into gear in response to big negative events such as the death of a loved one, but not in response to smaller negative events like missing an appointment or your car breaking down. This follows that our daily level of happiness may be much more easily predicated on the little events than on big ones. It may sound absurd on the surface but Gilbert cites study after study validating it’s truth.
Without a highly developed prefrontal cortex like ours, animals are stuck living in the present. The human brain is the unique in that it is capable of imagining the future – and we love to do it. Because we’re granted the power to weigh out all of the possibilities, we can feel pleasantly at ease and in control of situations yet to come. But we don’t do it without error. In his book Dr. Gilbert explores the psychological delusions that often distort our perception of happiness:
Subjectivity: Happiness is a subjective emotion; it is impossible to compare your level of happiness to mine. Take for example twins Lori and Reba Schappel – conjoined at the head since birth. Sharing a skull and some brain tissue, the two are forever locked face-to-face. But despite their obvious challenges, the women are playful, joyful and optimistic. Dr. Gilbert challenges the reader by asking how we would feel in their situation. Despondent, desperate, and depressed? We cannot accurately judge.
A prominent medical historian wrote “Many surgeons find it inconceivable that life is worth living as a conjoined twin, inconceivable that one would not be willing to risk all – mobility, reproductive ability, the life of one or both twins- to try for separation.” Apparently it is common knowledge that the life of a conjoined twin is so horrible and worthless to make dangerous separation surgeries an ethical imperative.
Imagination works so quickly , quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.
Realism: When we look at an event either backward into our memory, or forward into the future we fill in the blanks. However, as we envisage the future , the details of those events that we don’t imagine we simply treat as if they were not going to happen.
Page 97: “we do not outgrow realism so much as we learn to outfox it, and that even as adults our perceptions are characterized by an initial moment of realism.” … “we automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties. Only later—if we have the time, energy, and ability—do we rapidly repudiate that assumption and consider the possibility that the real world may not actually be as it appears to us.” … “We believe what we see, and then we unbelieve it when we have to.”
Someone might be invited on a tropical cruise but because of a particular bad experience on a boat, or a memory of someone else’s experience (either a true or fictional story), they could have the expectation of a week of sea-sickness, overcast skies, turbulent waters and everyone in a general state of discomfort and dissatisfaction. They might ignore the reality of the beautiful, warm sunshine, sipping margaritas on the deck, and dancing under the stars.
The brain is hard-wired to emphasize the details it observes and remembers, and to not notice what’s missing.
Rationalization: Imagination cannot accurately preditct how we will think and feel about the event once it actually happens. To disambiguate experiences, we create biased facts to explain why we think something will happen.
“Of course some things are better than others. Winning the lotto IS better than becoming a paraplegic. 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 over rated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully.
When out ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, steal, sacrifice things of real value, destroy. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful.
When unbounded, and overblown, we’re reckless and cowardly. Our longings and our worries and both o some degree overblown because we have with us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constant chasing when we choose experience.