The Salesman Inside Our Own Heads

Image from Pixabay

Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception—part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.

“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.

“Redundancy?”

“Yes.”

My heart sped up a little, but then immediately slowed down to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm—why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? Heart racing like a jackrabbit after a can of Red Bull? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.

Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting—our ability to predict our future emotional state—can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, accompanied by mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, healed only by disappearing into the duvet for 24 hours. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we consider to be life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system”, protecting us from big negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.

The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted—the tedious day-to-day tasks; the missing sense of making any kind of real difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind—the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.

The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable, or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time—a term known as “impact bias”. But when these undesirable realities actually hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than concurring with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re all-too-willing to accept to relinquish the anguish that you’re feeling. Why would you choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?

In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.

I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me, after all), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied—the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy—a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety2—even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with “defusion” techniques.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve known for a while that I want to change careers, with a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling. 

I’m choosing to believe it.

References

  1. Daniel Gilbert, The Surprising Science of Happiness
  2. Mostafa Heydari, Saideh Masafi, Mehdi Jafari, Seyed Hassan Saadat, and Shima Shahyad, Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Razi Psychiatric Center Staff

Seeking meaning, not happiness, will make you happier

peter-lloyd-609343-unsplashPhoto by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken – so near and yet so far – if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.

As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness/pleasure only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.

An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:

“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.” — Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism

Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy – a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it.

“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap” — William Bennett

Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian – a social psychologist based in Melbourne – identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.

It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed – end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.” — Alain De Botton

In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that happiness cannot be coveted, the happier we’ll be.

“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit” — Daniel Gilbert

We’re not the only one’s suffering – our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again – amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.

So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?

The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is wonderfully unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”  — Helen Keller

In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.

“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something” — Harold S. Kushner

“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” — Martin E. P. Seligman

What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?

Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.