We’ve all heard it. “Happiness is the key to a longer, healthier life.” Beyond forcing yourself to be happy, however, how can this sentiment help us achieve a better life? Happiness is often thought of as something to be found, or perhaps as something to be acquired in particular moments. When asked in what moments they are particularly happy, however, most people only think of a few big events in their lifetime.
This doesn’t mean people aren’t happy. If anything, it means we don’t quite know what happiness is and what it truly means to us. Many of us have fun on a regular basis, but do not count these casual instances as examples of their happiness. Try to think of the last time you were happy. What were you doing? Who were you with?
In his TED Talk “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert establishes the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe as the part of the brain that acts as the “experience simulator.” According to Gilbert, the prefrontal cortex is a “marvelous adaptation” that helps humans have experiences in their heads before trying them out in real life. It’s such a marvelous adaption, Gilbert considers it “up there with opposable thumbs and standing upright and language as one of the things that got our species out of the trees and into the shopping mall.”
Unfortunately, the same experience simulator also has what Gilbert and psychologists call an impact bias. In Gilbert’s words, an impact bias is “the tendency for the similar to work badly… to make you believe that difference outcomes are more different than in fact they really are.” What does all this mean? It means our brains exaggerate the difference between favorable and unfavorable outcomes, and thus, the bad potentials seem worse and the good potentials seem better. In reality, setbacks and mistakes that happened more than three months ago have no impact on your current happiness.
“From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have,” Gilbert said. Gilbert insists that happiness is based more in optimism and our state of mind. More than anything, our happiness is unaffected by most things we believe to be bad results, situations or days.
Gilbert uses Moreese Bickham as an example of making happiness for yourself. According to the New York Times, Moreese Bickham served 37 years in prison before being released on good behavior. It’s worth noting that Bickham spent 14 years in solitary confinement. During his first moments outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Bickham “turned to wave farewell, crouched down to touch a finger to the dirt, and kissed it.” Upon his release, Bickham said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”
Happiness does not solely exist in grand moments. Happiness can be found in the activities we spend time on and the people we spend time with, but is often forgotten underneath many of the small, negative parts of our daily lives. Happiness is a state of mind and, if given the chance, your mind will overestimate the bad and underestimate the good. Happiness can be found within yourself, and can be created. The healthiest kind of happiness does not depend on anyone else; you make it for yourself.