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

Now we give you a choice: “We happen to have some extra prints in the closet. We’re going to give you one as your prize to take home. We happen to have number three and number four,” we tell the subject. This is a bit of a difficult choice, because neither one is preferred strongly to the other, but naturally, people tend to pick number three because they liked it a little better than number four.

Sometime later — it could be 15 minutes; it could be 15 days — the same stimuli are put before the subject, and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli. “Tell us how much you like them now.” What happens? Watch as happiness is synthesized. This is the result that has been replicated over and over again. You’re watching happiness be synthesized. Would you like to see it again? Happiness! “The one I got is really better than I thought! That other one I didn’t get sucks!” That’s the synthesis of happiness.

Now, what’s the right response to that? “Yeah, right!” Now, here’s the experiment we did, and I hope this is going to convince you that “Yeah, right!” was not the right response.

We did this experiment with a group of patients who had anterograde amnesia. These are hospitalized patients. Most of them have Korsakoff’s syndrome, a polyneuritic psychosis. They drank way too much, and they can’t make new memories. Okay? They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself, and then leave the room, when you come back, they don’t know who you are.

We took our Monet prints to the hospital. And we asked these patients to rank them from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least. We then gave them the choice between number three and number four. Like everybody else, they said, “Gee, thanks Doc! That’s great! I could use a new print. I’ll take number three.” We explained we would have number three mailed to them. We gathered up our materials and we went out of the room, and counted to a half hour.

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Back into the room, we say, “Hi, we’re back.” The patients, bless them, say, “Ah, Doc, I’m sorry, I’ve got a memory problem; that’s why I’m here. If I’ve met you before, I don’t remember.”

“Really, you don’t remember? I was just here with the Monet prints?”

“Sorry, Doc, I just don’t have a clue.”

“No problem, Jim. All I want you to do is rank these for me from the one you like the most to the one you like the least.”

What do they do? Well, let’s first check and make sure they’re really amnesiac. We ask these amnesiac patients to tell us which one they own, which one they chose last time, which one is theirs. And what we find is amnesiac patients just guess. These are normal controls, where if I did this with you, all of you would know which print you chose. But if I do this with amnesiac patients, they don’t have a clue. They can’t pick their print out of a lineup.

Here’s what normal controls do: they synthesize happiness. Right? This is the change in liking score, the change from the first time they ranked to the second time they ranked. Normal controls show — that was the magic I showed you; now I’m showing it to you in graphical form — “The one I own is better than I thought. The one I didn’t own, the one I left behind, is not as good as I thought.” Amnesiacs do exactly the same thing. Think about this result.

These people like better the one they own, but they don’t know they own it. “Yeah, right” is not the right response. What these people did when they synthesized happiness is they really, truly changed their affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster. They’re not just saying it because they own it, because they don’t know they own it.

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Now, when psychologists show you bars, you know that they are showing you averages of lots of people. And yet, all of us have this psychological immune system, this capacity to synthesize happiness, but some of us do this trick better than others. And some situations allow anybody to do it more effectively than other situations do. It turns out that freedom — the ability to make up your mind and change your mind — is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one that you would most enjoy. But freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.

And I’m going to show you why. Dilbert already knows, of course. You’re reading the cartoon as I’m talking. “Dogbert’s tech support. How may I abuse you?”

“My printer prints a blank page after every document.”

“Why complain about getting free paper?”

“Free? Aren’t you just giving me my own paper?”

“Look at the quality of the free paper compared to your lousy regular paper! Only a fool or a liar would say that they look the same!”

“Now that you mention it, it does seem a little silkier!”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m helping people accept the things they cannot change.” Indeed.

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