The Surprising Science of Happiness

How much do external events affect happiness?  Not all that much according to  Dan Gilbert in his amazing TedTalk — The surprising science of happiness.    Dan shows that events have less of an effect on our happiness than we expect.  Dan starts by reporting that with evolution, human being have developed an experience simulator — they have the ability to simulate an experience without actually having to have the experience.  Dan uses the example of liver and onions ice cream — we don’t have to create liver and onion ice cream and taste it to know we won’t like it.

He then shows how poorly the simulator works.  We expect to be happier if we win the lottery and less happy if we become paralyzed.  However, the data shows that people who win the lottery are just as happy as people who become paralyzed.  In fact, research shows that people overestimate the impact of events on their happiness – both the duration and intensity of any impact is far less that people expect.  Basically, if it happened more than three months ago it has no effect on your happiness. (See also “Proof That You Can Get Over Anything“)   I suppose this explains why I am still upset about the Patriots’ loss to the Ravens, but I can see how I might be able to get over it in about 3 months.

Dan then offers the suggestion that happiness can be synthesized – that people have the ability to change their view of the world – unconsciously – so that they feel better about the world.  He supports this idea with anecdotes and with research.

Anecdotally, he shows examples of people who have had bad things happen to them – being disgraced and losing their power and prestige, losing their jobs, being mistakenly imprisoned for 37 years – who then say they are better off, they would not have changed anything and that they are happier than they otherwise would have been.

Dan then provides the results of research experiments in which subjects are asked to rank Monet prints in the order of what they like from most to least (see Claude Monet to see prints and for more information about Claude Monet).  They are then offered a print of their third or fourth most favorite print and most people chose their third favorite.  Sometime later, they are asked to rank the prints again and they rank the one they were given higher and the one that they did not choose lower than previously.  These results are repeated in experiments over and over.  In addition, they did this experiment with amnesia patients.  These patients, who could not remember the experimenters or the even the print that they had been given, ranked the one they had been given higher than they had previously and the one that had not chosen lower than they had before.  They changed their reactions – how much they liked each of the prints – after having been given a print even though they didn’t remember which print they had been given.

In my daughter’s preschool, they had a saying:  “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”  Surprisingly, Dan’s research suggests that not only do you not get upset, you come to like what you got.

Dan takes this a step further in another experiment which showed that when people had an opportunity to change their minds – they could change their initial decision – they were less happy with the choice they made.  People who were stuck with their initial decision liked their choice MORE than people who had an opportunity to change their minds.  Basically, people were happier with what they got if they did not have an opportunity to second guess themselves.  Moreover, prior to the experiment, when people were given an opportunity to choose – would they like the opportunity to change their minds – most people chose to have the opportunity to change their minds (which perversely resulted in them being less happy with their decision than people who elected not to have an opportunity to change their minds).

Dan concludes his TedTalk with the following advice:  “Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity [happiness] we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”  Basically, he is saying that external events have less of an effect on happiness because we have the ability to be happy with what we get.

Dan’s talk is fascinating and I have added his book, Stumbling on Happiness, to my list of books to read.  The best takeaway from this “Surprising Science of Happiness”  TedTalk is to be less anxious about what might happen because no matter what happens, we still have the ability to be happy.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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