Just as your physiological immune system functions to protect your physical health, your psychological immune system protects your emotional well-being from external threats. In a 2005 article, psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert explain that your psychological immune system can function in a variety of ways, including making favorable attributions for your own behavior, reconciling conflicting thoughts and behaviors, and helping to restore self-esteem and happiness following negative events. During these challenging times, our psychological immune systems are already functioning on a largely unconscious level, helping us to cope with stress, anxiety, and negative life events.
How Does Your Psychological Immune System Work?
When we experience negative events we also experience negative emotions. Although these emotions can be very powerful, we tend to overestimate how intensely and for how long we will experience them, a phenomenon referred to as implicit bias (Wilson and Gilbert, 2005). As the authors explain, negative events and emotions activate our unconscious psychological immune systems which help us to make sense of events in a self-protective fashion. Our psychological immune systems also allow us to focus on other positive events which can help to facilitate the return of positive emotions. For example, if you learned that you had not received a highly desired new job, you might anticipate that you would be very upset for the next few weeks. However, we tend to underestimate how other events will also influence our feelings, such as a call from a friend who makes you laugh or a pay raise at your current job. As a result, we find ourselves better off emotionally than we had anticipated. Also, we could explain not getting a second interview for that job by blaming an interviewer who was unpleasant and rude rather than blaming ourselves. As we make sense of negative events we also acclimate to them in a way which makes them less strongly impact our emotions (Wilson and Gilbert, 2005).
Furthermore, when negative events occur we are unconsciously motivated to make the best of them, and our emotional reactions actually change. For example, if we had to make a very difficult decision about whether to visit a sick and elderly relative for the holidays or fly to France to spend the holidays with a friend, we may experience feelings of sadness or guilt over the choice we did not make. Our psychological immune systems actually change our reactions to both events to be consistent with our behavior. For example, if we choose to visit our elderly relative, we will eventually come to feel that visiting her was more important to us and we will begin to doubt that the holiday with friends would have made us as happy.
During these difficult times, don’t underestimate the power of your psychological immune system. According to psychologist Dan Gilbert, speaking in a TED talk, although doing the things we want to do can help to make us naturally happy, when we can’t do what we want to do, our psychological immune systems function to help make us “synthetically happy.” Although most people assume that synthetic happiness is inferior to natural happiness, our immune systems function so well that we often feel equally as happy with what we are able to achieve as we would have been if we had gotten what we truly wanted.
Gilbert, D. T. (2004). The surprising science of happiness. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_the_surprising_science_of_happine…
Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.