‘To like what I do rather than do what I like’ is a straightforward path to happiness. This motto helps prevent my expectations from dictating my life’s direction. No doubt, scripture (Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Biblical, etc.) first got me considering life this way, and life experience has since verified its truth (1). The previous post, Is Happiness In Your Choices? (p.403) spoke to this.
Google [Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness] for another TED Talk on the erroneous assumptions we make about happiness. Just briefly, he says…
From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. A recent study—this almost floors me—a recent study showing how major life 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”.
The research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, has revealed something really quite startling to us, something we call the “impact bias,” which is the tendency … to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than, in fact, they really are.
Or as chapter 56 says, This is called profound sameness.
Dan Gilbert regards the frontal lobe as an experience simulator. He claims this is the source of synthetic happiness, which he says is true happiness. According to him, Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.
Appreciation is happiness.
Dan Gilbert’s synthetic happiness sounds like the faculty of appreciation. In psychology research, gratitude corresponds consistently to greater happiness. Gratitude improves health and helps people savor experiences, feel upbeat emotions, cope with adversity, and manage relationships. Thoughts, like my motto above, can embody gratitude. You might say gratitude is the language of happiness. And while we extol the virtue of gratitude overall, we find it’s much easier in practice to seek more… ‘more is better’.
Gilbert ends his talk with this, “The lesson I want to leave you with, from these data, is that 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.”
Declaring “… we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing …” is mistakenly suggesting we can freely choose to be grateful (2). Neither do we have an instinctive faculty to feel gratitude. Or if we do, it is much weaker than our innate capacity to seek more. Seeking more of what we need— not gratitude for what we have—is a real survival advantage in the wild… feeling ‘more is better’ is only problematic in civilization.
Gilbert also fails to recognize how the human situation is but an emergent property (p.121) of primal instinct. Although for humans, the evolutionary endowment of a frontal lobe experience simulator is often problematic for it allows us to think we know. As chapter 71 counsels, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Every upside of thought comes with a balancing complementary downside, which we seldom realize.
Therefore, by definition, other animals have what I’d call genuine natural happiness precisely because they don’t have this ‘experience simulator’. Realizing this simulator causes our disease helps limit its effects upon us. If anything, the very notion of free choice interferes with natural happiness. We can’t be spontaneous to live out each moment because we always have a plan for a future. Belief in free will just locks the mind into our plan.
His description of “synthesizing happiness” is correct only when we are able to think our way into feeling gratitude. Our difficulty stems from how we thwart every natural balancing mechanism possible in order to get what we want, when we want it, in the quantity we want, with minimal expense on our part. A wealth of technology, from the stone axe to the computer, has steadily liberated us from natural limitations… and natural happiness. (See And Then There Was Fire, p.296 for an outline of this journey.)
Wealth and happiness
The wealth we normally seek is material and promises happiness in our ‘more is better’ mind’s eye. Conversely, I would say that happiness is wealth, or as chapter 33 observes, Being content is wealth. Ironically, the happiness we seek is right under our noses. However, being constantly pulled to hunt & gather for happiness ‘out there’, we are unable to find it ‘here’. Evidently, this is just another one of nature’s hoodwinks to keep life moving forward… a hunt and gather instinct, if you will. Actually, from the cellular level on up, all this fundamentally boils down to this: movement ð meaning ðnatural happiness (see A final word on need, p.639). That is why we are always Imagining a Better Way (p.267).
(1) While walking down the street in Honk Kong in the late 60’s I suddenly noticed how somber the people’s faces were. I thought, “Is nobody happy?” Reflecting on that experience years later, I realized, yes, no one is truly happy. That isn’t how nature works. Sure, we have our ‘high’ moments, but overall evolution sets life up to survive in a dog eat dog world. This means, every organism—humans included—must feel a certain degree of unease regarding unknown threats lurking currently and beyond. Nothing alive can afford to relax in contentment for long. Buddha has it right in his 4th truth, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. If you accept nature’s reality, expectations for otherwise are less likely to haunt your life. Peace of mind lies in conforming to nature’s ‘rule’. As chapter 52 hints, Squeeze exchange, shut the gates; to the end, oneself diligent. In other words, focus on the task underway diligently.
(2) Something like this happened during our home schooling days. My sons and I were studying Biology and Human Behavior, taught by Professor Robert Sapolsky. He gave solid evidence for the lack of free will. Yet, he concluded his lectures with an emotional appeal the seemed to smack of free will!
This demonstrates the holding power of a cultural paradigm. If you believe in free will, in God, or whatever, nothing can dissuade you. Belief is blinding. Now, do I believe there is no free will? No, I just fail to see any proof, especially after studying biology. The belief in free will is likely a symptom of various deep-seated emotions. In other words, our belief in free will is simply an emergent property of deep-seated emotions acting upon cognition.