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Shambhala Sun: Most Buddhists think that twenty-five centuries ago, long before modern psychology, the Buddha identified the process that distorts cognition. He said that our view bends perception to agree with our view, then perceptions form the evidence for our thoughts, and the thoughts argue in support of our view, and that the whole thing is a self-justifying cycle of delusion. Does this agree with your view of things?
Daniel Gilbert: That Buddha was one smart cookie! If you listen to Buddhists talk about Buddhist psychology, you learn that 2,500 years before there was psychology, there were smart people paying very careful attention to how the mind works and coming to some wonderful insights, which I think are the insights that science verifies today. That doesn’t mean that there is 100 percent agreement. I don’t know Buddhist psychology well enough to say what that percentage is. I’d be very surprised if everything the Buddha said is upheld by scientific psychology. I’d be very surprised if everything was disconfirmed. My guess is that a great deal of what Buddhists consider their core psychology would fit very nicely with modern psychology. I was at a conference with the Dalai Lama in which his main interest was precisely in finding the areas of disagreements between Buddhist and Western psychology. Because of his enormous respect for science, he was willing to consider areas where Buddhism might be wrong. You can’t help but admire that kind of spirit.
A few hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon wrote quite articulately about how we find evidence to confirm our view. It’s a fundamental truth about the human mind. We have beliefs, ideas, and perceptions, and the brain gets to work very quickly trying to find evidence to substantiate them. What it counts as evidence differs between people and across centuries and across cultures, but indeed the entire process kind of justifies itself.
Shambhala Sun: You said that the most surprising finding in your work is that people are happier for a longer time if they don’t fully understand why the event that made them happy happened. Do we know why that is?
Daniel Gilbert: I think we do. It’s not surprising that the mind tends to focus on that which it doesn’t understand. Think of the human brain like Pac-Man: it’s looking for things that aren’t understood. It’s scanning its environment constantly for mysteries that it can solve. And once it solves them, it packs them away in its file drawer and looks for another.
Your brain is very good at that. Bless it for doing that; that’s exactly what it ought to do. But there’s a catch: once things are understood, they tend to have less emotional consequence than when they’re not understood. That’s why most psychotherapy tries to help people understand their suffering, because understanding it somewhat diminishes it. By the same token, once we understand good things, they’re not quite as good as when they were just delicious mysteries.
Shambhala Sun: While most of us uncritically accept information that makes us happy, you say that some people cannot reason their way to happiness. Does that mean that depression can be a more accurate reaction to life?
Daniel Gilbert: Well, yes it can in some way. We know that if depressed and non-depressed people are both exposed to what we call “uncertain contingencies,” depressed people will provide more accurate responses. For example, I can bring people into my laboratory and say, “Here are two buttons, and when you press them, lights may or may not go on. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. You’ve got to decide if the buttons are hooked up. Play with this apparatus, press the buttons, and see if you think your presses correspond to the lights going on and off well enough for you to say that you are in control of the lights.” Depressed people will do that task more accurately. Non-depressed people will tend to err in the direction of saying, “I think my presses are controlling the lights.” Depressed people will correctly say, “These things aren’t even hooked up.”
In certain circumscribed circumstances, then, depressed people are more accurate. At the same time, depressed people are ridiculously inaccurate about some very important matters, such as what kind of good and bad things will happen to them in the future or how much others like them.
Shambhala Sun: Overall, then, you regard it as a good thing that we have this ingrained habit of uncritically accepting information that makes us happy?
Daniel Gilbert: I do. My view of it is that there are many different ways to see the same thing, all of which are equally right. There is not a single fact of the matter most of the time. If you lose your job tomorrow, is that a good or a bad thing? One could make a case for dozens of different shades of interpretation of that event, all of which are equally true. The question is which one your brain most wants to believe. If you are like most people, your brain will find the most sanguine of the alternatives, the one that makes you the happiest. I’m not sure your brain is making a mistake. I’m not sure that finding the happiest of all the reasonable alternatives is unreasonable. There is only a problem when the brain goes shopping beyond the latitude of reason to put an unreasonable spin on events.
Shambhala Sun: What do you think of the fact that the idea of happiness is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution?
Daniel Gilbert: The Constitution promises three things: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s interesting—it’s not the pursuit of liberty. Liberty you’re given, but all you’re given about happiness is the right to try to find it. And there’s a lot of wisdom in that, because, of course, nobody can guarantee you happiness. They can only guarantee that you are alive and free to pursue it.
My synonym for the pursuit of happiness is “living.” I really think that’s what life is all about. Some people will object, because to them “happiness” stands for a kind of bovine contentment, the pleasures of the flesh. Surely, life must be about something more than happiness! Well, I don’t think it is, because we can achieve happiness through some of the most sublime things, the things that we admire and cherish, rather than things we indulge in, like chocolate and a good orgasm. Those are sources of happiness too, but we know from data that altruistic acts, for example, are more powerful sources of happiness.
Shambhala Sun: That raises the interesting question about the role of science in this. What does science have to tell us about happiness?
Daniel Gilbert: Well, how do we figure out what makes us happy? Grandma told us a lot of things about happiness, and culture tells us a lot of things about happiness. Charlie Brown says happiness is a warm puppy. The Beatles say it’s a warm gun. Everybody has an idea about what happiness is. What science can do for us is help separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the myth—as dispassionately as possible. I would have been delighted to discover that money brings happiness, because I have money. On the other hand, that’s not what the data says. By the same token, I wasn’t pleased to see that children don’t bring happiness, because I have a child.
When we separate truth from myth, what do we find? We find that Grandma was right about some things. For example, when Grandma said friendships and good marriage are keys to happiness, she was right. Probably the single best predictor of a person’s happiness is the quality and extent of their social relationships. People with solid friendships, and people with healthy romantic relationships, are usually quite happy, regardless of almost anything else that happens in their lives. Social relationships are a better predictor of happiness than your physical health. If you had to choose between being paralyzed from the waist down and having no friends whatsoever, you would probably be better off being paraplegic than friendless.