Day 617: Illusion of Happiness

The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped. This is the difference between dating and marriage, right? I mean, you go out on a date with a guy, and he picks his nose; you don't go out on another date. You're married to a guy and he picks his nose? Yeah, he has a heart of gold; don't touch the fruitcake. Right? (Laughter) You find a way to be happy with what's happened. Now what I want to show you is that people don't know this about themselves, and not knowing this can work to our supreme disadvantage. 
Here's an experiment we did at Harvard. We created a photography course, a black-and-white photography course, and we allowed students to come in and learn how to use a darkroom. So we gave them cameras; they went around campus; they took 12 pictures of their favorite professors and their dorm room and their dog, and all the other things they wanted to have Harvard memories of. They bring us the camera; we make up a contact sheet; they figure out which are the two best pictures; and we now spend six hours teaching them about darkrooms. And they blow two of them up, and they have two gorgeous eight-by-10 glossies of meaningful things to them, and we say, "Which one would you like to give up?" They say, "I have to give one up?" "Oh, yes. We need one as evidence of the class project. So you have to give me one. You have to make a choice. You get to keep one, and I get to keep one."  
Now, there are two conditions in this experiment. In one case, the students are told, "But you know, if you want to change your mind, I'll always have the other one here, and in the next four days, before I actually mail it to headquarters, I'll be glad to" -- (Laughter) -- yeah, "headquarters" -- "I'll be glad to swap it out with you. In fact, I'll come to your dorm room and give -- just give me an email. Better yet, I'll check with you. You ever want to change your mind, it's totally returnable." The other half of the students are told exactly the opposite: "Make your choice. And by the way, the mail is going out, gosh, in two minutes, to England. Your picture will be winging its way over the Atlantic. You will never see it again." Now, half of the students in each of these conditions are asked to make predictions about how much they're going to come to like the picture that they keep and the picture they leave behind. Other students are just sent back to their little dorm rooms and they are measured over the next three to six days on their liking, satisfaction with the pictures. And look at what we find. 
First of all, here's what students think is going to happen. They think they're going to maybe come to like the picture they chose a little more than the one they left behind, but these are not statistically significant differences. It's a very small increase, and it doesn't much matter whether they were in the reversible or irreversible condition. 
Wrong-o. Bad simulators. Because here's what's really happening. Both right before the swap and five days later, people who are stuck with that picture, who have no choice, who can never change their mind, like it a lot! And people who are deliberating -- "Should I return it? Have I gotten the right one? Maybe this isn't the good one? Maybe I left the good one?" -- have killed themselves. They don't like their picture, and in fact even after the opportunity to swap has expired, they still don't like their picture. Why? Because the reversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness. 
So here's the final piece of this experiment. We bring in a whole new group of naive Harvard students and we say, "You know, we're doing a photography course, and we can do it one of two ways. We could do it so that when you take the two pictures, you'd have four days to change your mind, or we're doing another course where you take the two pictures and you make up your mind right away and you can never change it. Which course would you like to be in?" Duh! 66 percent of the students, two-thirds, prefer to be in the course where they have the opportunity to change their mind. Hello? 66 percent of the students choose to be in the course in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with the picture. Because they do not know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows. - Dan Gilbert

This Talk brings in a number of themes mentioned in my previous posts based on other Talks by other speakers - what I am seeing is that many of these observations are the same, the researchers/observers are only coming from different perspectives. Read some of my previous posts and you'll see what I see.

In this Talk by Dan Gilbert, he is discussing the tendency of people to not accurately imagine the future which he has applied to the concept of happiness. He has shown how the way that we make a choice in a world of 'freedom of choice' is more likely to leave us regretting the choice than being happy with it. The problem is that, firstly, we seldom project the future accurately (especially when we have a special interest in a particular outcome) and secondly, we spend a whole hell of a lot of time thinking about our choice (this includes questioning whether it was the "right" choice and thinking about all the "what if's"). Most of these problems come from our tendency to approach things in life in an emotional state where we do not rationally and fully consider things. The other side of the coin for some is that, even if you do make a rational choice, you plague yourself with imaginary scenarios that make your choice appear to be somehow inferior (this is also driven by an emotional state, often fear).

Dan defines "natural happiness" as what we get when we get what we wanted (fulfillment) and "synthetic happiness" as what we make when we don't get what we want. Is synthetic happiness just a way for us to not go mad? Is it a form of cognitive dissonance from which we alter our views to accommodate some new version of reality? Does it come about from an act of justification?

I would say that both are bogus terms - happiness does not exist in this world. We have abused the word 'happiness' tot he extent that it no longer holds any real meaning. Happiness has become the absence of pain and discomfort.