Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Impact Bias

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 18, 2014

Dan Gilbert

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

A “psychological immune system” is what Dr. Gilbert terms the mechanism about how we cope with adversity. “We synthesize happiness,” he says, implying that we frame events in our lives in order to feel happy.  He cites the story of a man who was wrongfully in prison for most of his life and then describes the prison as “glorious.” This TED talk got me going towards this post, as I found myself talking back to the podcast. What people say and how people feel are two different things, I wanted to say. There is the manifest content, what is expressed, often representing wishes and fears, which are part of the latent content. In other words, asking people if they are happy is not a useful exercise, as happiness is an affect which has layers of complexity and ambiguities, and hence not amenable to a yes or no question. We do not “synthesize” happiness,” we experience meaning, closeness, a sense of importance, joy, humor and relaxation, and with those feelings comes happiness. Self-assessment of happiness is also not the best measure as it presumes that people know how they feel, which, to my way of thinking, is not always so clear. Understanding one’s mental state is a challenge for many, and so the answer to the question about happiness is subject to the “living in wishes” experience that I have blogged about previously. How to obtain happiness is an interesting question. I do not think Dr. Gilbert is helping us towards that answer.

3 Responses to “Impact Bias”

  1. Jon said

    I am more sympathetic to Dr. Gilbert than you are, Shirah. After listening to the TED talk, I feel that the good Dr. Gilbert has real points. That said, I think that you are also addressing real points.

    What Dr. Gilbert is showing is that people are rationalizing that the events that have shaped their lives allow them to be happy. He also goes on to show that, for most people, being given a choice about their future can be a source of unhappiness. His examples have the ring of truth to them, at least to my ear.

    Now, is asking if people are happy a useful exercise? Perhaps. Yes, “happiness is an affect which has layers of complexity and ambiguities, and hence not amenable to a yes or no question.” However, people have a wonderful ability to make do. As such, continuing with the Rolling Stone quote used by Dr. Gilbert, “you can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.” It is the wonderful human ability to make do that allows us to become happy with getting what we need. This is an example of obtaining (or, in his parlance, “synthesizing”) happiness that I think is well being elucidated.

    Is there more to the question? Of course! And that is why you, Shirah, still have many good insights to bestow…

    • Interesting comments, Jon. As you know, one reason I blog is to push back against the oversimplification of mental states and so Dr. Gilbert gave me fodder. I think it is indeed interesting how the human mind tends to right situations which from the outside seem very disappointing, a topic covered in the resilience literature, but I also think we need to distinguish between rationalization versus finding a deep sense of fulfillment. This distinction is important because someone might say they are happy, while at the same time, abusing alcohol in a self-destructive way, so we need a schema which allows for this apparent contradiction. Thanks, as always, for stimulating this conversation.

  2. Shelly said

    I feel that it is annoying to hear people spouting how happy they are or how people choose to be happy all the time. I don’t believe them if they need to tell me how happy or how to get happy all the time. I definitely relate to your comment, “We do not “synthesize” happiness,” we experience meaning, closeness, a sense of importance, joy, humor and relaxation, and with those feelings comes happiness. Because if I do not find meaning in my life, joy in the little things, and time for relaxation, I will not be happy even if I tell everyone that I am or “choose to be happy.”

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