Dan Gilbert on The Surprising Science of Happiness at TED (Full Transcript)

We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found. Now, you don’t need me to tell you, give you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect. Though I’m going to show you some experimental evidence, you don’t have to look very far for evidence.

As a challenge to myself, since I say this once in a while in lectures, I took a copy of the New York Times and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness. Here are three guys synthesizing happiness. “I am so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, mentally and almost every other way.” “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” “I believe it turned out for the best.”

Who are these characters who are so damn happy? Well the first one is Jim Wright. Some of you are old enough to remember: he was the chairman of the House of Representatives and he resigned in disgrace when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich found out about a shady book deal he had done. He lost everything. The most powerful Democrat in the country lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his power. What does he have to say all these years later about it? “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and in almost every other way.” What other way would there be to be better off? Vegetably? Minerally? Animally? He’s pretty much covered them there.

Moreese Bickham is somebody you’ve never heard of. Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released. He was 78 years old. He’d spent 37 years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit. He was ultimately exonerated at the age of 78 through DNA evidence. What did he say about his experience? “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” Glorious! This guy is not saying, “Well, there were some nice guys. They had a gym.” “Glorious,” a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience.

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Harry S. Langerman uttered these words, and he’s somebody you might have known but didn’t, because in 1949 he read a little article in the paper about a hamburger stand owned by two brothers named McDonalds. And he thought, “That’s a really neat idea!” So he went to find them. They said, “We can give you a franchise on this for 3,000 bucks.” Harry went back to New York, asked his brother, who was an investment banker, to loan him the $3,000, and his brother’s immortal words were, “You idiot, nobody eats hamburgers.” He wouldn’t lend him the money, and of course, six months later Ray Kroc had exactly the same idea. It turns out people do eat hamburgers, and Ray Kroc, for a while, became the richest man in America.

And then finally — you know, the best of all possible worlds — some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best, who was the original drummer for the Beatles, until they, you know, sent him out on an errand and snuck away and picked up Ringo on a tour. Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed — yes, he’s still a drummer; yes, he’s a studio musician — he had this to say: “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Okay. There’s something important to be learned from these people, and it is the secret of happiness. Here it is, finally to be revealed.

First: accrue wealth, power, and prestige, then lose it.

Second: spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.

Third: make somebody else really, really rich. And finally: never ever join the Beatles.

Now I, like Ze Frank, can predict your next thought, which is, “Yeah, right.” Because when people synthesize happiness, as these gentlemen seem to have done, we all smile at them, but we kind of roll our eyes and say, “Yeah right, you never really wanted the job.” “Oh yeah, right. You really didn’t have that much in common with her, and you figured that out just about the time she threw the engagement ring in your face.” We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness.

What are these terms? Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.

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Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it? With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard, a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable, because they don’t want stuff enough.

I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for. I’m a scientist, so I’m going to do this not with rhetoric, but by marinating you in a little bit of data.

Let me first show you an experimental paradigm that is used to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness among regular old folks. And this isn’t mine. It’s a 50-year-old paradigm called the free choice paradigm. It’s very simple. You bring in, say, six objects, and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked. In this case, because this experiment uses them, these are Monet prints. So, everybody can rank these Monet prints from the one they like the most, to the one they like the least.

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