Research on happiness from social psychologist Daniel Gilbert can help us in surprising ways.
[ music ] . Hi, this is Rob Sepich, and welcome to Relaxing with Rob. I don't know how you feel about philosophy, but I've studied the great thinkers throughout history. You know, as Steve Martin once said, people like Socrates, Plato. I'll even add Descartes [all intentionally mispronounced] to the group. But seriously, I appreciate what philosophers have written about meaning and happiness and purpose. But what I really like is research on how the mind works. And I've always tried to apply that research to help others. Like how we always look for patterns, and how we fool ourselves into thinking we're seeing them even when they don't exist. For example, we think that a string of bad luck has got to be followed by good luck. If you're tossing a coin, even after four heads in a row, the odds of a tails on the fifth toss are still 50-50, because each toss itself is an independent event. Well, our confidence that the next one has got to be a tails is one way the gambling industry turns such a nice profit. In fact, the belief is so common that it has a name: "the gambler's fallacy." Today I'd like to talk about research on how decision-making relates to your happiness. And my goal for you is to come away with less anxiety about big decisions that you're facing, because in a sense you won't have to do anything about them. You'll only need to understand a bit more about how your mind works. We talked about happiness in episode 23, "Increase your Happiness," and a little bit about decision making in episode 26, "Make Choices Without Agonizing." Now, I'd like to offer thoughts on what I think of as a combination of the two. Daniel Gilbert, a renowned social psychologist at Harvard, published a best seller in 2006 called "Stumbling on Happiness." It's been translated into more than 30 languages. And he summarized his research and that of others around the world in a highly constructive way. And what he found applies to most people, not to everybody. But I hope that two of his findings will help you. For your convenience, I'm placing a link to his book in the show notes. And this is a non-affiliate link, so if you purchase something, I don't receive anything. And I'll also post a link to one of his TED Talks. Okay, here's one of his findings. We are really bad at predicting how much we're going to change in the future. We just consistently underestimate it. From 18-year-olds predicting how they'll be when they're 28, to 58-year-olds predicting how they're going to be when they're 68. And we're also really poor at predicting what will make us happy or sad. We think that winning the lottery would create permanent bliss, and it simply does not. And after the initial rush of happiness, we return to baseline, and usually fall below it. And we think that an unexpected tragedy, a loss of a loved one or an accident that might result in permanent disability, will crush our happiness, and we'll stay that way. And although it hurts a lot, it's temporary. We are remarkably resilient, so we typically don't stay that way. In fact, research shows that resilience is actually the most common outcome for people following trauma or loss. Pretty soon after, about 50% of people bounce back and within two years, about 75% of people have recovered. So if you're obsessing about future inevitable losses, you know like the death of close family members, and you're open to scientific evidence, then the good news is that the pain you will experience will pass. And the loss you'll feel will be real, of course, and it might not ever fully go away, but it will change. And you will bounce back with more strength than you might imagine. When Sylvia Boorstein got the news of her father's terminal illness, she said it felt like a sledgehammer, but not to a brick wall where she'd crumble and never really get put back together in the same condition. But she said it felt like it was more to a mattress, where she was still feeling crushed, but she also felt like she would be able to come back to life. Gilbert's research confirms this process. So my suggestion is try not to sweat it or to grieve before it's necessary. Save your energy for when you'll need it and recognize that you really are so much stronger and resilient than you think you are. And here's a second finding from his research. We love to rationalize and we might not even be aware when we're doing it. It's like we're hardwired for this. It might be because we just don't want to go around constantly saying, "Well, I made another stupid decision." That just creates too much psychological pain. We'd rather convince ourselves that we're making good decisions, and we seem to ignore evidence to the contrary. For example, here's an amalgam of things I've heard from friends and former students and clients throughout my career. It goes something like this: "It's a good thing I dropped that class because it gave me a chance to take this other one that I loved. And then I majored in that subject. And then I got into this great graduate program. I met my partner; we moved to my favorite city where we developed a terrific circle of friends. None of this would have happened if I would've stayed in that class." And if it's not the "dropped class" as the catalyst, it's the loss of a job, or an accident, or a diagnosis, all of which seemed to prompt a cascade of benefits. So if you're stuck over a decision about what you should do, what to major in, or who to have as a roommate next year, where you might want to do graduate work, or what job offer to accept, at some level (and I know this might sound strange) the answer is: "It does not matter." Because whatever you decide, it will be the correct decision. In just a few years, you're going to look back on this moment and say, "I made the right call because I ended up here." Maybe it wasn't a straight line and you took some detours and learned some things along the way, but you'll probably say, "I like it here. In fact, I wonder why I even considered the alternative." Now I understand that this research does not apply in all situations. We all make poor decisions from time to time and have regrets. But typically we seem to find ways to justify our behavior because it's less painful than the alternative. So my personal takeaway from his research on rationalizations is to channel Bill Murray from his movie "Meatballs" with the chant. "It just doesn't matter, It just doesn't matter," because whatever you choose will be the best one. Thank you for listening, and we'll talk again soon. [ music ] .