People often think about happiness and decision-making as positively intercorrelated. It makes a lot of sense to think that. If we have a choice in a matter, we will probably end up happier. Most people, if not everyone, would prefer to be able to choose something, be able to change their minds, or be able to “control” what they are receiving over having it randomly selected for them or set in stone. Logically, this all makes perfect sense, why would we not want an open door to be able to change our minds about our choices?
However, that may be far from true. A long time ago I watched a Ted Talk that has stuck with me since the day I saw it. This video is The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert. In this talk, he speaks about how our happiness may not be in our own hands, and maybe it shouldn’t be. He explains how we can have synthesized happiness or natural happiness. Dan describes the two as, one: the happiness we get from getting what we wanted, natural happiness. Two: the happiness we create when we do not get what we wanted, synthetic happiness. Happiness is described as a search that we are on the constant look-out for.
Throughout the talk, there are many examples of how some people who ended up on the not-so-good side of a situation somehow still ended up finding happiness. Dan speaks about how humans have a system of unconscious cognitive processes that affects a person’s view of the world. This process allows a person to find happiness in whatever situation they are in. A surprising example of this is shown when they tested happiness on lottery winners and paraplegics, and both ended up having the same level of happiness a couple years down the road. However, when it comes down to the freedom of choice and the ability to change your mind, synthetic happiness is at its worst.
So how is decision making affected and how does it affect happiness?
Dan explains this process through an experiment in which he created a photography course and had students take 12 photos. They were then told to pick their two favorite photos. The two were turned into large canvas prints and then the students had to choose one to keep for themselves and the other to give up. However, these students were split into two groups of subjects with different conditions. One group was told they pick a photo print and keep it forever, no take-backs, returns, or exchanges. While the other group was told they have the ability to change their minds at any time in the next few days with no consequences and have the option to exchange.
The results were then gathered. Both right before the subjects took their picture home and five days after, the students who did not have the ability to exchange their prints, ended up perfectly happy and content with their choice. However, those who were given the ability to choose to return their prints were very unhappy. These subjects were left questioning themselves on their choice and if they made the right choice from the beginning of their decision making up until they no longer had the option to return it anymore.
This talk describes how the cognitive processes that help us view the world and find happiness, work best when we are stuck with our decision. When we, as humans, have something and it is set in stone, we will gradually find happiness in it. When we are given a wide variety and told that we have the ability to change things, we underestimate the amount of happiness we received from the first thing. Humans get flooded with thoughts and doubts about our decisions.
People believe their happiness lies in their ability to choose. This makes sense as natural happiness can be positively affected when we can choose between losing a thousand dollars or traveling the world. But being on a constant search for happiness and overthinking and overanalyzing our choices leads to everything but happiness.
This talk is something that always randomly surfaces in my mind whenever I feel like I chose the “wrong thing” or regret a decision that isn’t really that bad. I have a bad habit of constantly wondering if I made the right choice. Do biology majors have more fun? Would VCU have been more exciting? Should I not have painted my room purple? Sometimes being content is better than constantly wondering if the choice was right, especially when it can’t be changed or the changing process itself is a mystery. The unconscious cognitive “immune system” is here to help us. However, doubting our decision-making is what destroys any source of happiness we find.