My simple motto for the secret to happiness is to like what I do rather than do what I like. Recalling this motto daily helps prevent my expectations from dictating my life willy-nilly. No doubt, scripture (Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Biblical, etc.) first got me seeing life along this line, 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. In short, 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.
As chapter 56 says, This is called profound sameness.
The only issue I have is over his definition of what he calls synthetic happiness. According to Dan Gilbert –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. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. I’d have to say “Yes and no”. Isn’t synthetic happiness simply the natural act of acceptance? And sure, I’ll admit acceptance is often frowned upon in our ‘get it done just do it’ culture.
He talks about the frontal lobe as being an experience simulator. He claims this is the source of synthetic happiness, which he defines as true happiness. His data is solid, but his interpretation feels otherwise. Please listen to his interesting TED talk before reading on.
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.”
This is reasonable only if you believe in free will, so I assume he believes in free choice (2). He also fails to recognize how the human situation is truly natural, an emergent property (p.121) of primal instinct. Albeit for humans, the evolutionary endowment of a frontal lobe experience simulator is often problematic as it allows us to think we know. As chapter 71 warns us, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Every benefit comes with a balancing cost… every upside with a complementary downside that we are always reluctant to accept. We want to have our cake and eat it too. This is more likely to be the cause of our unhappiness.
Therefore, by definition, other animals have natural happiness precisely because they don’t have this ‘experience simulator’. Realizing this simulator causes our disease, as the rest of chapter 71 points out, can help mediate its effects upon us. Therefore, if anything, the very notion of choice — free will — interferes with truly natural happiness. We can’t be spontaneous to live out each moment because we always have a plan for a future. Believing we have free will just locks the mind into our plan.
His description of “synthesizing happiness” is actually what I’d call natural happiness. Our problem is that we have thwarted 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.)
Speaking of Wealth
They say wealth doesn’t bring happiness. I would say paradoxically that happiness is wealth. The wealth we commonly seek is material and promises happiness in the illusion of ‘more is better’ and ‘the grass is greener’ pots of gold at the end of our imagination’s rainbow. Humanity’s wealth of technology comes under that category. The passive wealth that we receive in contentment correlates with true happiness. As chapter 33 puts it, Being content is wealth. Ironically, the happiness we seek is right under our noses, but being continuously pulled to seek happiness ‘out there’, we are unable to feel it right here and now. Of course, this is just another one of nature’s hoodwinks to keep life living… a hunt and gather instinct, if you will. 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 all the sad faces people were wearing. I thought, “Is nobody happy?” Reflecting on that experience years later, I realize, yes, no one is truly happy. That isn’t how nature works. Of course, we have our ‘high’ moments, but over all evolution sets life up to survive in what is often a dog eat dog world. Buddha has it right in his 4th truth, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth”. You see, if you accept nature’s reality, expectations for otherwise are less likely to haunt your life. Peace lies in conforming to nature’s ‘rule’. His next line is the next step, “Whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. When your desire is the same as your sense of what you truly ought to do, there is no room left for expectations.
(2) Something like this happened a few years ago during our home schooling days. My sons and I were studying Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, taught by Professor Robert Sapolsky. It was a solid biological nail in the coffin of free will. Yet, to our utter amazement, Professor Sapolsky concludes his lectures with an emotional appeal smacking of free choice!
This demonstrates the holding power of a cultural paradigm. If you believe in free will, in God, or in ghosts, nothing can dissuade you. Belief IS the blind spot (p.144). I suppose I should address an obvious follow up question: Do I believe there is no free will? No, I just fail to see any proof. The belief in free will, whether implied or explicit, seems more likely to be a symptom of a number of deep-seated emotions. In other words, our belief in free will is simply an emergent property of deep-seated emotions acting upon cognition. To be fair, perhaps I misread the Professor. After all, I was limited to a DVD’s one-sided conversation. In any case, his research is solid and worth serious study.