I came across this TED talk quite a few weeks ago and have found my thoughts coming back to it time and time again. (You don’t need to watch it to read this article here)
In essence, the psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about how we humans have a curious way of making ourselves happy, pretty much no matter what actually happens to us. Whenever there is a choice (apparently especially if it is irreversible or made for us), we adjust our reality in such a way that we think we ended up with the best possible outcome. Really interesting about this is that this seems fairly independent of the original effect being negative or positive. As an example he cited people winning the lottery or loosing the use of their legs in an accident. According to his studies, a year after the life changing event, both groups are equally happy. If people get one of two possibilities (in his example a picture), they afterwards like the one they much got better and the one they didn’t get much less than before. He calls this process “synthesizing happiness” because we take a situation and change the image of it in our minds in such a way that the result makes us happy. We so to speak “create” happiness. This must mainly happen subconsciously as even people who cannot form new memories (due to some illness or accident) react in this way.
I don’t know about you, but I have actually observed this phenomena time and time again, both in myself and in other people. I can even see how it works. On the one hand there is the confirmation bias. After all, nobody likes to be wrong. It causes unpleasant feelings and we tend to avoid those. I think we therefore simply (subconsciously) decide that this was the right choice. Then we have to adjust our perception of reality to make it true because otherwise we will come across contradictions which show us that this decision would have been a mistake in itself. And remember, we don’t like mistakes.
I came across another mechanism that shows our dislike for mistakes in Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking: Fast and Slow”. According to some studies cited there, we plain simple have a habit of overstating the importance of information that fits our view of the world and dismissing things that contradict it, fairly regardless of the actual relevance of the information. We filter information so that we are right. This is of course handy when trying to come to grips with a situation we cannot change: We just automatically focus hard on the bright spots and ignore the shadows.
Finally, “what you see is all there is”. This is a concept also introduced by Kahnemann and it states that we have a strong tendency to overstate the importance of information we have, as opposed to information we don’t have. In our choice problem from above, this means that the information on the existing situation, which we have already pre-filtered to be positive, seems much more important than all the information on all other possible options we missed out on. It is another filter that supports us in our choice, making the existing situation seem like the important one.
So in any situation where we missed out on an opportunity, whether by choice or not, we assure ourselves that we didn’t make a mistake by considering all the positives more important than the negatives and focusing on the information we have, as opposed to the one we don’t have. We make ourselves happy whatever happens, completely automatically. I find this an incredibly comforting thought, because it means that choices and opportunities in the end don’t matter that much. Happiness lies literally in any direction.
I have one main criticism with this theory though: Why does it seem to be working so badly for so many people? While I said above that I know many people for whom this seems to be true, I can also think of quite a few examples of people who are still bitter about something that happened years ago. Or of people who always seem unhappy, no matter what happens. Why are they not synthesizing happiness? Why does it mainly seem to be people with what I would call a positive attitude, who successfully apply the routine described above? I’d say this happens because the whole process isn’t quite as automatic as some people like to claim.
My guess is that the happiness synthesization procedure can be overridden by conscious thought. This would also explain why having the option of changing our minds does not make us happy but irreversible choices do. Imagine you were given a choice of two pictures and you picked one. You take it home with you, you put it up and sometimes, when you look at it, you might think “Yeah, that is my favourite colour. “ In that case, your brain would be free to run it’s happiness creation routine undisturbed. Your conscious thought might even fuel it.
But imagine what would have happened if you had been given the choice to go back at any time and change it? When you look at the picture now, you would probably start contemplating on whether this was really the right choice. “Wouldn’t the colour of the other picture look better in this room? And you never really liked that tree in the background there anyway.” With only these two sentences, you have already overridden your tendency to ignore negative information and to ignore information you don’t have. With that you have essentially destroyed the routine above and the happiness never comes to be. If, on the other hand, you look at the picture you have in a much more positive light, you will disturb your routine a lot less. That’s why I believe attitudes matter so much: we do have the ability to become happy in pretty much any situation, but we have to make sure we don’t destroy our brain’s attempt at getting us there.
Basically, don’t worry and you will be fine.
What do you think about this? Have you observed yourself or somebody else doing this?
(I would like to point out that I’m neither a psychologist nor an expert in this area. I’m just a curious mind with a stack of books. What I have written here might be utter and complete rubbish. Please feel free to disagree with me and write me angry comments/emails)