The Surprising and Strange Ways Our Brains Work, and the Science Behind It

My grandfather spent several months as a prisoner of war during the WWII Japanese occupation of the Philippines. It was a brutal incarceration, in which he was interrogated, tortured and starved, fearing that each new day that arrived would be his last. He recalls:

At times, especially during my hunger pains, I fancied that I was eating my favorite foods – sweets and chocolates. I resolved that if I lived through this ordeal, all the food I had rejected before: vegetables, liver, eggs, and all the other etceteras would from then on be part of my regular menu.

My grandfather’s resolve was sincere, but it was never to be practiced because upon his release, he quickly reverted to a diet that excluded all the things he vowed to eat.

I was reminded of this anecdote as I was reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, which looks into the human imagination and the science of how our minds interpret the world around us.

I imagine that most of us would make a similar kind of promise if we were to find ourselves in a situation such as my grandfather’s. The question is, how many of us would keep it?

Here’s what Daniel Gilbert has to say about the very flawed and inaccurate ways in which we perceive the future:

What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Would you race upstairs and light that Marlboro you’ve been hiding in your sock drawer since the Ford administration? Would you waltz into your boss’s office and present him with a detailed description of his personal defects? Would you drive out to that steakhouse near the new mall and order a T-bone, medium rare, with an extra side of the really bad cholesterol?

The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor’s witless jokes… and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves.

Just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us.

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like… and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.

In other words, we are poor predictors of what will make us happy or healthy or well adjusted. We place a tremendous amount of effort trying to anticipate the future, where we overestimate how much negative events will harm our lives and overvalue how positive ones will improve them.

Interestingly enough, according to researchers, our levels of happiness following a significant event, whether it be amazing or tragic, revert to previous levels within six months to a year. Gilbert calls this ability to return to previous levels of happiness our “psychological immune system” kicking in, but it only applies to big, traumatic events and not small, every day things. Which means that it’s the little things that happen to us every day that most affect our happiness.

For example, we could lose both of our legs, something we’d imagine to be devastating beyond belief, but we would still be able to enjoy a great book, a bottle of wine with friends or a beautiful sunset on a perfect summer evening.

On the flip side, we could wake up tomorrow with $100 million in our bank account, which one would think would provide everlasting happiness, but we’d still have to deal with every day irritations like customer service, paying our taxes, and traffic jams.

It makes sense, then, that we can emerge from one of the most horrifying experiences of our lives, and quickly go back to our old habits, despite our earlier resolve to change.

Finding Pockets of Happiness

As a kid, I never understood the “there are starving children in Africa” tactic for getting me to finish my dinner. Sure, I’d think about the kids for a brief moment as I shoved a few more bites of food into my mouth, but I ate to appease my parents, not from some deep sense of gratitude. Now I understand why.

Our brains notice the presence of something (a nasty sinus infection) versus the absence of it (being able to breathe free and clear). That makes it virtually impossible to feel two opposite things at the same time (hungry and full, rich and poor, grateful and negative), as well as recognize and appreciate the dozens of things in our lives, things that don’t change, that are not front and center.

That’s why happiness and well being are so hard to predict. They’re too subjective, too relative, too dynamic. You and I could both say “I’m happy” or “I’m hurting” and mean two completely different things. And they would mean different things tomorrow and next week and next year.

As rational as we think we are, the perceptions we have of ourselves, others, our past and the future will never be accurate.

We will always try to rationalize the irrational. We will always try to predict what our future selves will want or need. And we will inevitably make promises we won’t likely keep, fantasize about the things that will make our problems disappear, and imagine the most horrible of doomsday scenarios.

Which brings me to my no complaining, judging and gossiping challenge. It’s been difficult to detach myself from my brain’s hardwired tendency to focus on that one negative thing that’s staring at me in the face.

I’ve lost my cool and reacted in ways that contradict what I am trying to accomplish, which is why the practice of consciously taking a moment to override these impulses has been so valuable. What am I really feeling? What’s the solution? What’s the positive? Can I let this go now?

Because I do believe that in spite of the crazy manner in which my brain perceives and processes the bits and pieces of information that make its way in, there are lots of pockets of happiness that are there for the taking. We just have to take the time to pause, look around, and appreciate them.

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