Day 068 - It's all relative

Submitted by Sam on 28 July, 2011 - 00:33

Our uniquely large pre-frontal cortex enables us to simulate experiences, allowing us to compare potential futures and make judgements based on these simulations. The difficulty in deciding which of several simulations we prefer arises because we are surprisingly poor at analyzing what makes us happy. Seemingly obvious questions such as 'would you prefer to become paraplegic or win the lottery?' are obscured by the extraordinary fact that one year after each event, both groups report being equally happy with their lives. A preference for one alternative over another can be measured in its ability to confer happiness, and, contrary to all of our impulses, there can be no rational preference in this example when considered over a sufficiently long time-period, as there is no reported qualitative difference between the two levels of happiness after a single year.

This is a result of the impact bias, the tendency of our emotional simulator to overestimate the intensity of future emotional states, making you believe that the difference in two outcomes is greater than it really is. In short, things that we would unthinkingly consider important, like getting a promotion or not, passing an exam, or not or gaining or losing a romantic partner, frequently have far less impact, of a much lower intensity and a much lower duration than we expect them to have. Indeed, in an astonishing study published in 1996, it was found that even major life traumas had no effect on subjective well-being (with very few exceptions) if they had not occurred in the past three months 1.

The reason for this remarkable ability is that our views of the world change to make us feel better about whatever environment we find ourselves in over a period of time. Everything is relative, and we make happiness where we would otherwise believe there to be none. To truncate a well-known quotation from Milton, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell”. Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, calls this 'synthesizing happiness'.

Synthetic happiness differs from 'natural' happiness in that natural happiness is what we feel when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we (eventually) feel when we don't get what we wanted. The mistake we make is believing that synthetic happiness is inferior to natural happiness. This mistake is perpetuated by a society driven by an economic system which relies on people believing that getting what you want makes you happier than not getting what you want ever could. We can resist this falsehood by remembering that we possess within ourselves the ability to synthesize the commodity that we always pursue, and that we consistently overrate the emotional differences between two choices.

  • 1. Suh, Eunkook, Ed Diener, and Frank Fujita. "Events and Subjective Well-being: Only Recent Events Matter." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70.5 (1996): 1091-102. Print.
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