Research by Dan Gilbert (Harvard), his students and colleagues clearly indicates that we can synthesize our own happiness despite what would seem like dire circumstances or poor choices. The thing is, this powerful innate coping mechanism or psychological immune system can be a liability as well, because it can undermine our motivation for action.
There's little doubt about it, we're very good at finding "the silver lining" to any dark cloud. For example, my previous posting about cogntive dissonance provides examples of the strategies we use to reduce any internal conflict we may feel, and Dan Gilbert's research provides ample experimental evidence that we can manufacture our own happiness as we enhance our positive hedonic response to align with our choices or current situation. If you're not familiar with Dan's work, you can get an good introduction with his TED talk and you may enjoy his book Stumbling on Happiness.
It is pretty obvious that we don't want to feel badly, so we don't. Our brains are well equipped with a "psychological immune system" to ensure that we synthesize our happiness as Dan phrases it. So, what's wrong with that? Happy is good, right?
I think one problem with this is that in synthesizing happiness around our current situation, we minimize any perceived distance between our actual self and ideal self. In essence, we're saying our actual self or situation is fine, even ideal. Unfortunately, this diminishes an important source of motivation in our lives, as the discrepancy between our actual and ideal self can act as a self guide and motivate us to work towards achieving that ideal self. We work to minimize the discrepancy. At least we could do that, but as I noted in my entry on cognitive dissonance, the easier route is to change our attitude or, as Dan Gilbert puts it, adjust our attitude or preference to synthesize our own happiness with the current state of affairs.
In his TED talk, Dan summarizes research that shows how powerful this brain strategy is; in a free-choice paradigm experiment, patients with anterograde amnesia demonstrated a stronger preference for a previous choice even though they were consciously unable to remember making that choice. Dan argues that they had changed their hedonic response at the time of their choice. Our brains work to reduce dissonance, make us feel better about our choices and situation, even when we're not consciously aware of any of it! Hmmm . . . sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it? Not much chance of change given this strong bias built into our brains.
I don't think so. Difficult perhaps, but not hopeless. Change is possible. Knowing that we have this innate bias towards preferring what we have chosen more than what we did not, or preferring the situation we're in as opposed to one we are not, or being happy in a situation when the situation could be much better, can help us make other choices. As we often say in this modern era of information technology, knowledge is power. In this case, I think it's the power to change.
Interestingly, Dan talks about the psychological immune system as an adaptation that helps us cope with things we can not change. His research indicates it works best when we feel stuck or trapped, when we can't change our minds. In short, we find a way to be happy with what's happening when we're stuck.
Beating our own bias
Which line is longer? Any first-year psychology student knows that they are the same length. This Muller-Lyer illusion is a well known example of another way our brains are biased. However, we're not tricked by it if we understand the perceptual principles at work. So, just as I might learn to correct for expected perceptual illusions about size, orientation, etc., I might also, with some insight, focus and effort, learn to recognize when I'm synthesizing my happiness in order to avoid tension or disappointment. I think successful people do this everyday.
I'm actually optimistic that we can learn to do this, because we can certainly recognize the manufacturing of happiness in others. Again, in his TED talk, Dan uses three examples from the New York Times to do just that. He noted that people who lost their wealth and/or power, and even people who lost their freedom (having been imprisoned while truly innocent) reported being exceptionally happy with their situation. Dan and his audience all laughed at how outrageously silly this seems. This must be manufactured happiness. We recognize the incongruency in others, why not in our own lives?
Implications for reducing our procrastination
Ok, let's take a much more mundane example. We have a task that we intend to do, and when the time comes to act as intended, we voluntarily and quite irrationally delay this action. We procrastinate. Our action and intention (belief) are incongruent, and this creates dissonance, which we can resolve by synthesizing our own happiness (see my previous post about strategies we use to do this), or we can use this tension, this discrepancy between actual and ideal (or ought) self, to motivate a change in behavior.
Don't believe me? The evidence is all around us. Take for example an athlete who performs more poorly in a competition than expected or hoped. A gold medal was expected, and a bronze was awarded. He or she can synthesize happiness about the relative loss or use the tension created in the gap between actual and ideal self as fuel for further training. We all know what winning athletes do here, and it's done everyday.
Yes, we can synthesize our own happiness, and it's an important evolutionary adaptation related to the development of the prefrontal cortex as Dan Gilbert explains. That said, knowledge is power and we can learn to work around our innate biases if we're determined enough.
As Dan Gilbert closes his TED talk he notes, "Yes some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another."
I think the preferred future is one in which we act in a timely manner on our intentions to achieve our goals. Why? First, progress on our goals is another route to happiness and enhanced well being. Second, procrastination is related to negative emotions such as guilt; it undermines our happiness. Finally, authoring our lives by acting on our intentions is a fundamental aspect of being a person, of being in the world, of engaging authentically in our lives. In sum, if you want to be happier, decrease your procrastination. Don't rely on a synthetic happiness where you convince yourself that you're happier goofing off today. I know from the many emails and letters that I get from readers of this blog and listeners of my podcast that this is not the case. In fact, I'll bet that Dan's audience may have found humor in the example of the procrastinator claiming to be happy much as they did with the examples Dan noted from the New York Times, but this awaits future research.