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.
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.
- Daniel Gilbert, The Surprising Science of Happiness
- 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