Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says that we synthesise our happiness. Not only that, he also maintains that when we imagine what could make us happy, such as new clothes or an around the world trip our brains are invariably wrong in advising us that those things will make us happy.
We tend to think that getting things such as a job, a new car, winning the lotto is what will make us happy. But he says that studies have shown that we make ourselves happy by imagining that we are happy. So getting what we want doesn’t actually have anything to do with being happy.
Watching his talk at TED, which may be viewed on TED.com or by viewing the video at the bottom of this article the point that made me think hard was not so much about the happiness issue. He further discussed findings of research that showed people who have multiple choices tend to be less happy than those who have limited choices. Wow. That goes against all of our current thinking that freedom makes us happy.
During an experiment conducted in his Lab at Harvard, he offered a photography course. During this session students were told to take pics on campus of anything that they wished to preserve as a memory. They could take twelve pictures.
Out of these photos, students needed to chose their best two and these were printed out in good size and quality prints. Once these had been selected the group was divided into two control groups. One group was allowed to select one of the two pics with an option of being able to exchange this with the other picture within a four day period.
The other study group were presented with a one off choice. Take your best picture, but there is no exchange option available. Out of the participants, the group that had no choice to exchange loved their final choice and thought they had chosen the best picture. However, the group with the freedom to exchange were unhappy with their choices.
These experiments made Dan Gilbert surmise that having too many choices might create more discontent. Whereas, he found, having to settle for something and having no further choices in the matter, could actually make us happier.
Taking this argument a step further one could then surmise that people living under a dictator are actually happier than people living in a fully functioning democracy. Not that there are many of those around either. With other words, Robert Mugabe’s elections were more legitimate than one gives credit. Yes there was intimidation, but he would have won anyway, that is what one could speculate. There are may more dictators who survived long years in power with their citizens putting up with it.
How many top companies had founders who were absolute dictators or at least close to one? Steve Jobs springs to mind, Bill Gates is apparently not that easy to work for either. These are two I can think of off hand. There are probably many more.
Have a look at modern society and international real estate, the so-called developed world which presents us with umpteen choices in food, clothing, gadgets, motor vehicles and much more. So we eat more and have weight problems because we can’t make up our minds what, out of a huge selection in the supermarkets, we actually want to eat. We drive our brand new car out of the showroom and we want to buy the next new thing a month later. Ford had it right. You can have any car as long as it is black!
Our youngsters have never been more unhappy and discontent. Possibly we give the kids too much freedom of choice. We provide them with all the latest mobile phones, clothes, music downloads and pocket money to hang around in the mall with. All that freedom of choice could in fact be making them unhappier. And all we want to do is make them happy!
Ever wondered why people love their jobs even if it means they spend eight hours a day being a drone. They do this because they do not have choice or freedom to do their own thing. That limitation is what makes them happy. And the most important component to this existence is that they get a pat on the head and a well done for their efforts.
That is some thinking! There are some fascinating studies on how the brain works and what we do with that power. If we have the power to invent our happiness, what else can we conjure up? We could synthesise permanent health or longevity for instance. Or we could become millionaires! Either way, it leads to some interesting thought. Watch the video and be inspired.