TED Radio Hour: Dan Gilbert: What Makes Us Happy? Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we'll be miserable if we don't get what we want. Our "psychological immune system" lets us feel truly happy even when things don't go as planned.

Dan Gilbert: What Makes Us Happy?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. On this show, we feature a number of TED Talks where a speaker shares a powerful idea with an audience gathered at a TED conference. Today, we're talking about how our brain works in very marvelous and unexpected ways, a topic which has been popular at TED.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here is this 3-pound mass of jelly, and it can contemplate the meaning of infinity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This brain is an incredibly complicated circuit...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Made up of billions of active neurons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We chart it, we've drawn it, we've mapped it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're going to be able to see a child's brain as they learn to speak and read, as they solve a math problem, as they have an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We are the first generation that's going to be able to enter into the human mind and brain. Where will we take it?

DAN GILBERT: In 2 million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the 1-and-a-quarter pound brain of our ancestor habilis, to the almost 3-pound meatloaf that everybody here has between their ears.

STEWART: That's Dan Gilbert.

GILBERT: I'm a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

STEWART: And his TED Talk explores one of the great mysteries of the human mind.

GILBERT: Which is its ability to make us feel better when we feel bad.

STEWART: We'll talk more with Dan Gilbert in just a few minutes. Right now, let's get back to his TED Talk and the evolution of what he described as that 3-pound meatloaf. While the analogy is a little bit Hannibal Lecter to me, it is vivid. According to Gilbert, when tripled in size, the brain didn't just get three times bigger. It actually took on a new structure. Here's professor Gilbert at TED.


GILBERT: And one of the main reasons that our brain got so big is because it got a new part, called the frontal lobe; and particularly, a part called the pre-frontal cortex. Now, what does a pre-frontal cortex do for you that should justify the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull in the blink of evolutionary time? Well, it turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is, it is an experience simulator.

You know, flight - pilots practice in flight simulators so that they don't make real mistakes in planes. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life.

This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do, that no other animal can do quite like we can. It's a marvelous adaptation. It's up there with opposable thumbs and standing upright and language, as one of the things that got our species out of the trees and into the shopping mall.

Now, all of you have done this. I mean, you know, Ben & Jerry's doesn't have liver and onion ice cream, and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, yuck. It's because from - without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavor and say yuck, before you make it.

The research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, have revealed something really quite startling to us; something we call the impact bias, which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly, for the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact, they really are.

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. In fact, 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.

Why? Because happiness can be synthesized. Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642: I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles. Fortune hath not one place to hit me. What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head? Well, it turns out it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all of us have.

Human beings have something that we might think of as a psychological immune system, a system of cognitive processes - largely non-conscious cognitive processes - that help them change their views of the world so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves. Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine; unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it.

STEWART: Now we have Dan Gilbert in real time, joining us to follow up on his TED Talk. Dan, are you saying that we are wired to be happy with whatever hand we're dealt?

GILBERT: We are wired to be resilient. We're wired to find what's good in the current situation. It's good for us to be optimistic; it's good for us to feel good about our lives. Everybody wants to feel that way. But you can imagine, from an evolutionary perspective, an animal that cowers in the corner, sobbing and fearful, is not an animal that mates, explores, discovers, finds food. So we have been built to pick ourselves up by our boot straps and soldier on.

Truly, every generation of people has known this about human beings. It's just a bit of wisdom that seems to have been lost in the 20th century as we began to regard ourselves as, you know, kind of a field of fragile flowers that needs to go running to a therapist every time our shoelaces break. In fact, that's not what our species is all about. We are a species that's able to suffer a great deal of trauma and muddle through anyway.

STEWART: Dan, let's listen in to your TED Talk.


GILBERT: We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found. Now, you don't need me to tell you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect, though I'm going to show you some experimental evidence. I took a copy of the New York Times, and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness.

And here are three guys synthesizing happiness: I'm so much better off physically, financially, emotionally and almost every other way. I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience. I believe it turned out for the best. Who are these characters who are so damn happy?

Well, the first one is Jim Wright. Some of you are old enough to remember he was the chairman of the House of Representatives, and he resigned in disgrace when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich found out about a shady book deal he had done. He lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his power.

What does he have to say all these years later about it? I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally, and almost every other way. What other way would there be to be better off - vegetablely(ph), minerally(ph), animally? He's pretty much covered in there.

Moreese Bickham is somebody you've never heard of. Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released. He was 78 years old, he'd spent 37 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit. He was ultimately exonerated at the age of 78 through DNA evidence, and what did he have to say about his experience?

I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience. Glorious? This guy is not saying, well, you know, there were some nice guys and they had a gym. It's glorious, a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience.

Harry S. Langerman uttered these words - and he's somebody you might have known but didn't because in 1949, he read a little article in the paper about a hamburger stand owned by these two brothers named McDonald and he thought, that's a really neat idea, so he went to find them. They said, we can give you a franchise in this for 3,000 bucks.

Harry went back to New York; asked his brother, who was an investment banker, to loan him the $3,000. And his brother's immortal words were, you idiot, nobody eats hamburgers. He wouldn't lend him the money and, of course, six months later Ray Kroc had exactly the same idea. It turns out people do eat hamburgers and Ray Kroc, for a while, became the richest man in America.

STEWART: I just want to get your opinion on this one. Do you think Secretary of State Clinton wakes up and thinks: I'm really glad I'm not president. Whoo! Glad that didn't happen.


STEWART: You do?

GILBERT: I absolutely do. I believe there are days where she wakes up and says, thank God my life has gone this direction rather than the direction I wanted it to go. Now, I don't mean to say that the day after she lost that nomination she woke up and said, my gosh, I think it's all for the best - we would all worry about her mental health if she adopted that new attitude that quickly.

But I do believe that most of the time, she thinks that it did work out for the best for her. I think if she's like most people, she's found lots of ways in which there is good in that negative event, and she doesn't feel nearly as bad as she expected to feel when she - if she were asked to predict beforehand.

STEWART: There may be some listeners who aren't buying your answer to that last question, so this is the perfect place to return to your TED Talk, where you take on the doubters.


GILBERT: When people synthesize happiness, we all smile at them. But we kind of roll our eyes and say yeah, right, you never really wanted the job. Oh, yeah, right, you really didn't have that much in common with her, and you figured that out just about the time she threw the engagement ring in your face. We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness.

What are these terms? 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. Why do we have that belief? Well, it's very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?

STEWART: So I wonder, is this a capitalist conspiracy?

GILBERT: Well, Adam Smith certainly thought so. The father of free market capitalism was very clear when he said that people must have the illusion that more products and services will make them happy, or else the economy grinds to a halt. But I don't think it's a conspiracy foisted upon us by a star chamber of capitalists. I think it's a conspiracy of brains.

It's the way our brain naturally thinks; that if we get what we want, it'll be better than if we don't. That's the basic belief that keeps us moving forward, trying to get one thing to happen rather than the other.

STEWART: We are listening to, and having a conversation with, Dan Gilbert. His TED Talk was called "Why Are We Happy?" Let's listen to some more.


GILBERT: I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for. Now, I'm a scientist, so I'm going to do this not with rhetoric but by marinating you in a little bit of data. 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, you know, 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, 8-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 – yeah, headquarters – I'll be glad to swap it out with you. In fact, I'll come to your dorm room and give it. 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 and satisfaction with the pictures. Look at what we find. First of all, here's what's...

STEWART: I want you to tell me what we find. I want the not-TED version, the not-condensed version. What did you find from this experiment?

GILBERT: Right. Well, what we found was actually quite condensable, 'cause it was awfully simple. People who were allowed to return their pictures, who were allowed to change their mind later, weren't nearly as happy with what they got as those who had made an irrevocable choice.

And we've seen that in many studies since the TED Talk. People who make choices that are forever, that are permanent, that have no opportunity for change, end up being happier with what they've chosen.

STEWART: Why is that?

GILBERT: Well, it's not hard to understand and, once again, our friend Adam Smith predicted this right on the money. He said that we tend to rationalize, but we only tend to rationalize our outcomes when those outcomes can't be changed. You know, if you find yourself, you bought a sweater and you think maybe it makes you look fat, you bring it back to the store. You don't say to yourself, I don't believe it makes me look fat. In fact, it makes me look quite trim. You don't rationalize the sweater when you can, in fact, return it. It's only when we're stuck with things that rationalization kicks in.

So that's why we showed in this experiment that when people were unable to change their minds, the rationalization processes kicked in, and they decided that the photograph they'd chosen was indeed the best photograph. When people can have the - do have the opportunity to change their mind, they worry themselves to death about it: Gee, I wonder if I made the right decision. Was it the good one? Was it the bad one? Should I bring it back? Should I return it?

So we're very fond of saying that we should always keep doors open, preserve degrees of freedom, but there is a great deal of happiness that comes from burning bridges.

STEWART: Adam Smith is a running theme here, and you conclude your TED Talk with a quote from Smith.


GILBERT: This is worth contemplating. The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others. But none of them can be deserved - none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse for the horror of our own injustice.

In other words, yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value.

When our fears are bounded, we're prudent, we're cautious, we're thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we're reckless and we're cowardly.

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. Thank you.

STEWART: Dan, at the beginning of your talk, you referred to the psychological immune system in our brains: a system of cognitive processes that protect us from becoming unhappy or depressed. Now, is there anything a person can do to strengthen their psychological immune system? Is there any echinacea for the mind?

GILBERT: Well, before we decide that we need an echinacea for the mind, a way to strengthen the psychological immune system, we ought to ask what the dangers are of having one that's too strong, because we know there's dangers of having one that's too weak. People who are depressed have a weak psychological immune system; that is, they tend to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, rather than the other way around. But just like physiological immune system, you don't want it to be too weak, but you also don't want it to be too strong.

None of us wants to be the person, or even know the person, who is constantly figuring out ways in which the things that went bad in their life are actually all for the better. So it might just be that the psychological immune system works just exactly as it should, helping us choose - when there are two ways to view something that are equally reasonable, helping us choose the most positive way. But we don't want to be lost in illusion and delusion, convincing ourselves that everything that happens to us is for the best, everything we say and do is good.

STEWART: Dan Gilbert, thank you so much for being with us on the TED RADIO HOUR.

GILBERT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. You can find links to his research and to his book, "Stumbling on Happiness". Go to ted.npr.org. And you can watch another one of Dan's TED Talks and many more about how the mind works. Go to ted.com.

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