The surprising science of happiness – Dan Gilbert – TEDx talk

I recently saw this wonderful TEDx video by Dan Gilbert, The surprising science of happiness which raised some wonderfully thought provoking questions about how we humans as a species pursue happiness.

The video started off with Dan explaining how in the process of evolution, the human brain has tripled in mass over the course of the last two million years and that by itself is not just an increase in size, but one of the new structures formed in the brain, the pre-frontal cortex (one of whose functions is to simulate experiences for humans) has proven to be quite revolutionary. This part of the brain enables us humans to try and simulate experiences and process the outcomes in our brains well before they actually happen. For eg, just the thought of enjoying a lovely colorful ice cream on a sunny afternoon is enough to make our tongues water, just the thought, mind you, not the ice cream itself. Or just the thought of onion flavored ice cream is enough to make us go ‘Yuck’, just the thought, not the ice cream itself.

Dan then goes on to cite two examples to prove how all humans have an inherent ‘impact bias’ which is the tendency for this simulator in our brains to work badly. He goes on to prove with enough examples as to how happiness can be ‘synthesized’ by us. It turns out that all of us have a system of processes within our brains which tend to change our views of the world, so that we feel better about the current situations we find ourselves in, good or bad. And the funny part is that these processes are happening at a sub-conscious level without us even realizing it. Net result, we are actually happy even when we think we are unhappy and continuously keep looking for happiness. We synthesize our own happiness without even realizing that we do.

Natural happiness is what we experience when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we experience even when we don’t get what we wanted. And the best part is that this synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as natural happiness is. Dan then goes on to prove this point with more examples and details of real life experiments conducted in this regard.

His final paragraph, which I will paraphrase below is something that left me thinking for more than quite a bit of time.

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.

In case you want to watch the video itself (around 21 mins long), the same can be accessed here

2 thoughts on “The surprising science of happiness – Dan Gilbert – TEDx talk

  1. Very intriguing. Especially that part about synthetic happiness. Will watch the video when I get a chance. Btw, have you read The Book of Simple Living by Ruskin Bond. A beautiful book and I quote these lines from the book – “happiness is as elusive as a butterfly and we must never pursue it. If we stay very still, it may come and settle on our hand.But only briefly.”
    Kind of goes against this synthetic happiness thing, but a very different and a rather uncomplicated way of looking at things

    • @themoonstone, if anything, the Ruskin Bond quote pretty much goes in sync with what synthetic happiness is, watch the video and you will get what I am talking about 🙂

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