On the Ted Radio Hour “Simply Happy”, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist explains that we are all hard wired to be happy because our brain has the ability to synthesize happiness.
He begins his interview by discussing that over the past 2 million years the human brain has nearly tripled in mass to be 3 pounds, and a major addition to the human brain is the part of the pre-frontal cortex, which has the ability to be an “experience simulator”. This means that we are able to predict experiences in our minds before engaging in them in our lives. Along with this ability to predict experiences, is the “impact bias” which is the tendency of our experience simulators to work poorly, and for us to predict that negative events will have a greater negative impact than they actually will have. Gilbert goes on to explain that due to our faulty impact biases we are are actually much more resilient than what we predict ourselves to be. Surprising research shows that individuals who experience trauma have the ability to return to baseline in relatively little time. Every case is individual of course, but Gilbert draws on an example saying that many of us know someone who has experienced a deep trauma, such as the loss of a child, and that in a relatively short time, such as two years, that person has experienced happiness and has thrived again.
The question is then raised, if we are so resilient then why are we not able to recognize our own resiliency? Part of the answer presented is that we may be built to be strangers to ourselves so that we can partake in what evolution has in store for us. If we recognized our resiliency from the onset of our behaviors, we may not necessarily follow through. For example, if we knew that we would recover relatively quickly after a divorce, would we put as much work in to maintain the relationship?
Gilbert shifts the topic slightly and asserts that we are all hardwired more or less to be happy –why? Because we have the ability to synthesize happiness. What does it mean to synthesize happiness? Returning to the idea of the “experience simulator”, we have the ability to create happiness through reframing events and learning to view them in a constructive or positive way. The question is then raised, if happiness can be synthesized, is it real? Gilbert explains that synthetic describes the origin or the source of happiness, but the happiness itself is the same, and that psychologists don’t find many differences between happiness that has been synthesized versus happiness that hasn’t.
To conclude, some people are more capable of doing the work of reframing than others, but part of our happiness is in our control due to the possibility of doing the work of reframing. It is really important to emphasize that the happiness that so many of us are seeking might be closer than we realize if we embrace our ability to reframe our understanding of our present circumstances. Another important point that is worth reiterating is that science proves that we are much more resilient than we know ourselves to be. Amen.
You can find the full talk “Simply Happy” on the Ted Radio Hour here.