Stumbling On Apathy

By Gus Bouchard

What makes us happy? Getting what we want, of course.

Uh, wait. Not so fast.

As it turns out, we human beings aren’t very good at connecting what we want to what will actually make us happy. Thus, getting what we want makes virtually no difference in our happiness.

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor, wrote about this phenomenon in his 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness.” If you don’t have time to read the book, you can watch his TED talk, (go to and search “Daniel Gilbert”) in which he lays out all sorts of evidence for why you can be just as happy in a life full of misfortune and failure.

(Good news for Red Sox fans, no doubt.)

Gilbert invites his audience to imagine winning the lottery. Then he asks them to imagine getting into a car accident and becoming a paraplegic. Which event would make us happier?

Answer: there is no way to tell. Social scientists who research those who have won the lottery and those who have lost the use of their legs find that one year after each event, the groups report equal levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

This essentially means that, if your goal is to be happy, you can stop buying lottery tickets and instead cut off your legs with a chainsaw, and achieve the same result.

How can this be?

Simply put, “happiness can be synthesized.”  In other words, the human brain is capable of manufacturing happiness in adverse situations, happiness that is just as valid and enjoyable as the happiness that comes from getting what you thought you wanted.

We have a “psychological immune system” that enables us to manufacture contentment after we don’t get what we want. This is a great evolutionary tool for us to ward off mental illness from not being able to afford cosmetic surgery to close off our third nostril.

“Winning or losing an election, gaining losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing an exam… all of these kinds of events have far less intensity and less duration than people expect them to have,” says Gilbert.

But is it really as good?

Research shows that “synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you get when you stumble upon what you were aiming for,” Gilbert says.

Moreover, “freedom to choose is the enemy of synthetic happiness.”

Huh? We’re more happy when we have no options?

This is the difference between dating and marriage, Gilbert explains. If you’re on a date with a guy and he picks his nose, you don’t go out with him again. But if you’re married to a guy and he picks his nose, you say, “meh, he has a heart of gold, don’t touch the fruitcake.”

We generally find a way to be happy with what we have as long as we don’t have to wonder if we could choose something better. This is why Americans, despite achieving a standard of living higher and more glorious than any society in human history, are no happier than the Mululu tribes running naked through the Amazonian rain forest and subsisting entirely on grubs the size of Rush Limbaugh’s pinkie finger.

So, if you find yourself obsessing over the Presidential debates, or whether you should buy the latest iPhone, or whether you should keep sending those child support payments, I highly recommend you read Gilbert’s book.

Or don’t. You’ll be just as happy either way.



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