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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Science of Why We Are Happy - the Work of Dan Gilbert

I want to talk to you now about the science of why we are happy.  This part of my program comes from the work of Dan Gilbert.  I have a video which I show each of my clients and most of what I’m about to write comes directly from this video.  What Dan says is so important, that I want you to get it here.  What he says can change your perception on happiness, and for those of you who are reading this blog, I really want you to have it in front of you so you can go back to it.  There's something about seeing what's been said in written words that allows us to really grasp an idea, and this idea is radical.  I want to thank Dan Gilbert for his inestimable work in this area.  He really shined a light for me when I needed it.  

Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist and author of the New York Times best seller ‘Stumbling on Happiness.’  He believes that in our ardent pursuit of happiness, most of us have got the wrong road map.  He argues that our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong.  That our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy, and his premise is supported by clinical research drawn from psychology and neuroscience.  He challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want.  He proposes that our ‘psychological immune system’ lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t turned out as planned. 

So, why are we happy?  Well, about 300,000 years ago the human brain developed what is called the prefrontal cortex.  This makes us different from every other species on the planet in that it allows us to simulate and imagine.  This part of our brain is a simulator.  We can experience imagined experiences in the brain before they actually happen in life.  We can ‘test’ it out in our brains before we act it out in reality.  This is very similar to what a test pilot does in a flight simulator.  A pilot will practice flying in a simulator before he actually flies a plane.  He gets to experiment and work out all the mechanics of flying a plane in a simulator before he actually gets in a plane and takes off.  This same concept occurs in our brain when we imagine events in our lives which we would like to experience.  We imagine experiences in our mind before they actually happen. 

What the researchers have discovered is there is what’s called an ‘impact bias.’  What this means is that the simulator in our brain works badly.  Let me explain what I mean by this.  We would expect someone who has won the lottery to be happier than someone who becomes paraplegic.  When Dan Gilbert and his researchers examined this and tested out the happiness scale of people who won the lottery versus someone who’s become a paraplegic, what the data shows is that one year later, their happiness measures about the same.  They are equally happy with their lives.  So, this impact bias is a tendency to overrate the hedonic impact of future events.  ‘Hedonic’ meaning pleasure, feeling good, or happy.  Why is this true?  Because different outcomes are more different than they actually are.  

For example, whether a person wins or loses an election, or whether you have a relationship or not, or whether you get a promotion or you don’t get the promotion, all of these examples have a far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have.  We would expect someone who won an election to be happier than someone who lost.  Well, a year later following the election, it turns out that their level of happiness is probably about the same.

Why is this true?  Because happiness can be synthesized.  What do I mean by synthesized?  What do I mean by synthetic happiness? 

Sir Thomas Browne, in 1642, in his work titled ‘Religio Medici’ wrote:

·       “I am the happiest man alive.  I have that in me that can convert poverty into riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles, fortune hath not one place to hit me.”

What is he talking about?  Sir Thomas knew that we have this machine in our brain that converts negative experiences and events in our lives to something positive.  We human beings have what might be called a ‘psychological immune system’.  This is a system of cognitive processes, largely these are non-conscious cognitive processes that help us change the view of the world so that we can feel better about the world we find ourselves in. 

We synthesize happiness but ironically we think happiness is something not to be found.  Are there examples of people who have been able to find happiness after experiencing challenging and upsetting events in their lives?  Who were able to synthesize their happiness and turn lemons into lemonade? 

I’m going to share with you a few examples of people who have actually done this.  Jim Wright was a Democratic congressman in the 1990’s, he was chairman of the House of Representatives, and he resigned in disgrace after an up-and-coming Republican named Newt Gingrich found out he’d done this shady book deal.  As a consequence, Jim Wright lost everything – power, prestige, money – and he was the most powerful Democrat at that time.  What did Jim Wright, this disgraced congressman have to say about this years later.  He said:
             “I am so much better off, physically, financially, mentally, and in almost every way.”

Here’s another example of a man who was able to synthesize his happiness after experiencing what many of us would consider a horrible tragedy.  A guy named Morese Bickham, spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn't do.  After DNA evidence confirmed he was innocent, he was released from prison, at the age of 78.  Now, what did he have to say about his experience being wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years?  He said:
                 “I don’t have one minute’s regret.  It was a glorious experience.”

He said it was glorious?!  How could he find being wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn't do a glorious experience?  To our minds, this is impossible to fathom, nevertheless, this was his experience.

Here’s another example:  Pete Best was the original drummer of the Beatles before they dropped him and picked up Ringo Starr and later became ‘The Beatles’.  He was interviewed in 1994; he was still a drummer, still a musician, still playing music.  What did he have to say?  He could have been a part of one of the most important bands of the 20th Century!  He said:

·       “I’m happier than I would have been with The Beatles.”

Well, of course, we’re going to say ‘Yeah right.  Sure, ok.’  We smile at this and chuckle, and basically we deduce it in our minds that the person didn't really want that job, or you’re just trying to make a bad situation better, or you didn't really have that much in common with your ex-fiance and you figured that out just about the time she threw the ring back in your face!  But why do we smirk at other people’s ability to synthesize their happiness?  We smirk because we think that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we would consider natural happiness. 

What is natural happiness?  Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted.  Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.  In our society we think that synthetic happiness is of an inferior quality to natural happiness.  Where does this belief come from?  Well, what kind of an economic engine that keeps churning over and over again, creating more and more consumers, how could that engine keep going if we believed that not getting what we wanted could make us just as happy as getting what we wanted!  Dan Gilbert suggests to us that synthetic happiness is every bit as real, enduring, and of the quality and kind of happiness that you get when you get what you are aiming for. 

This kind of happiness is about accepting the things that you cannot change, and having the wisdom to recognize that.  Here’s a bit of irony for you:  the freedom that we all cherish, the freedom to make up your mind and the ability to change your mind, which allows us to choose all these delicious, enticing futures that we have before us, it’s the friend of natural happiness, but it is the enemy to synthetic happiness.  Synthetic happiness works when we recognize there are certain things we simply cannot change!  Plato says, “What is once done, can never be undone.”  When we can finally accept that, we can engage the psychological immune system to convert that negative experience, that traumatic event, into something more palatable which enables us to gain a healthier perspective of our own lives, and find happiness where we are right now. 

This ‘psychological immune system’ works best when we are totally stuck, when we are totally trapped.  When we have no other choice but to keep moving forward.  We have to find a way to be happy within the given circumstances of our lives, otherwise we get imprisoned in the ‘what ifs’ or ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I’m a failure’, which only prevents us from activating the non-conscious cognitive processes innate to us which will bring us out of the past and into our present happiness.  This attribute that we have which is clinical verified is something that most people don’t know about themselves and this can work to our disadvantage. 

There was a study done by Dan Gilbert and his researchers at Harvard where they offered a photography course to the students in which they would take lots of pictures of Harvard, their ‘memories of Harvard’, and at the end of the course, the students would get the opportunity to select and keep one of their two best pictures they had photographed.  The purpose behind this study was to understand the psychology underlying the unanticipated joy of being totally stuck.  The students were asked to participate in this photography course and at the end of the course they were going to get to choose two of their best pictures, and one of them, they were going to get to keep, the other they would have to relinquish.  For half the class Dan and his group told the students they could change their mind, they had the freedom to change their mind, and they had up to 4 days to do that.  The other half of the class was told that once they chose the picture that was it.  The other picture was being sent away right after class, mailed off to England somewhere.  The students had no option to change their mind. 

So the decision was for half the class reversible, 4 days to make a swap, and the other half was irreversible, they could never swap.  The students were asked whether they could predict their satisfaction 3 days later or they could go away and report what their satisfaction was in 3 days and then again in 6 days.  What the results were was that those who could not change their minds really liked the picture that they chose.  This group’s satisfaction actually increased.  However, those students who had the option of deliberating, who had the freedom to choose, didn't like their picture.  ‘Is this the right one? Did I chose the right one?  I think I like the other one.  The other one was better.  Why did I pick this one?’  They had this constant turmoil going on in their minds as to which picture was better.  It made them not like the picture they chose, and even after the opportunity to swap the pictures expired; they still didn't like their picture!  Why?  This occurred because the reversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness! 

Dan and his researchers conducted another similar study on another group of Harvard students a little bit later and in this study they asked the students which photography course they would take: a course where the choice of their two best pictures at the end would be reversible or irreversible?  66% chose the reversible course, where they would have the option to deliberate on which of their two pictures they wanted to keep, not realizing of course, based on the previous study, they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with their picture!  Because they did not know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows!

Shakespeare said this:  ‘Tis nothing good or bad, But thinking makes it so!’  Now wait a minute, is this really true?  Is nothing really good or bad?  Well Dan Gilbert makes a very salient point about this idea towards the end of this video which I share with you now.  He says that “yes, there are some things better than others, and we should have the preferences that lead us to one future or another, no question.  But when these preferences drive us too hard, or too fast, because we have overrated the differences between these two futures, we are at risk.  When our ambitions are bounded, it leads us to work joyfully.  And when our ambitions are unbounded, it leads us to lie, cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value.  When our fears are bounded, we are prudent, cautious, thoughtful, considerate, and kind.  And yet, when our fears are un-bounded and overblown, we can be reckless and we can be cowardly.” 

Dan leaves us with a lesson to be gained at the end of this video, which I really want you to have.  He says, “Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”  

What is important to take away from this blog?  Life sometimes gives us experiences that are a challenge to overcome.  When we refuse to take in these events and process them, and instead suppress them, it does major psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage to our beings.  With Post-Traumatic Soul Distress, Depression, and Trauma we are dealt a heavy hand.  Our souls are in trouble.  There’s a big gaping hole inside of us which paralyzes us and keeps us from finding a way to navigate out of the pain, and retrieve the joy of our own existence we once had.  But now we know from the work of Dan Gilbert we have a power within us that is able to convert those traumas in our lives and enable us to find the good, and thus, make peace with the past, which ultimately allows us to synthesize our happiness, so we can then build towards a better future.  We are able to do this through a ‘psychological immune system’ that is already built into us.  If we allow it to freely function without our interference, if we understand it and recognize its value in our lives, we can fundamentally change how we view the negative events that happened to us. 

It is a choice.  We have the free will to stay stuck, keep re-living the traumas over and over again in our minds, or we can take the time to transform them, and allow this built-in mechanism in our minds to convert that trauma, that pain, that suffering, into good.  We must recognize and own the power that we have within us to convert all of what has happened to us into fertilizer where we plant new seeds and grow into the people we are capable of becoming.  These traumas and pains can serve as fertilizer to being the best version of ourselves.  We must take the time necessary to cultivate this new self who is emerging by tending to our wounds and healing them.  We have the mechanism already built in to us if we will give ourselves the permission to tap into it.  It will synthesize those events for you and the feeling of happiness will replace all feelings of suffering.  Remember, nothing outside of you can give you what you already have.  You have it within you to be who it is you want to be.  When we are being who we want to be, the outside world will start to mirror that feeling and belief to us more and more.  Soon you will grow beyond the limitations that have been imposed upon you.  The traumas will continue to diminish in their power over you until they no longer hold sway over you and your right to be happy and free.  It’s time to empower yourselves.  Take in this information I am providing you, digest it, use it, and utilize it in your daily life.  You have the power within you to make the transformations in your life you so deeply long to have.  Begin the transformation today.


Charlie Pacello is a PTSD, Depression, and Healing Trauma Recovery Expert and Life Coach, a former US Air Force Lieutenant, and creator of the program, 'Lt. Pacello's Life Training Program.'  He can be reached by visiting his website at