In his excellent and thought-provoking book, ‘Stumbling on Happiness,’ Daniel Gilbert challenges our traditionally held beliefs on happiness. There are several key takeaways, not the least of which is, “anxiety is unhelpful because our brains are notoriously unreliable when it comes to predicting the future.” The experiences that we believe will bring us happiness, seldom do. But even more surprising, the experiences we dread and often try to avoid, fail to deliver the level of doom and gloom expected.
To illustrate his point, Gilbert references dozens of scientific studies -most of which go against conventional wisdom. One experiment, in particular, invited volunteers to receive three electric shocks. The fact that anyone signed up for this study is perhaps confirmation of the book’s central thesis. One group received moderate level shocks and the others received severe (painful) shocks. Upon completion, the participants were interviewed by psychologists. The participants who received the painful shocks were more grateful and appreciative of the experience than those who received less intense shocks. How is this possible? Gilbert explains, “if you managed to forgive your spouse (or anyone) for some egregious transgression but still find yourself miffed about the dent in the garage door or the trail of dirty socks on the staircase, then you have experienced this paradox.” It turns out, the answer lies in something called the Psychological Immune System.
We all have an immune system and its job is to fight off viruses so our body can run smoothly and stay safe from disease. It turns out, there is a psychological component to this. When we suffer a large scale attack on our psyche (Job loss, divorce, business failure, cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy etc.) our brain begins its job of protecting us by offering a more positive view of the experience. “That job wasn’t aligned with your values anyways. “He never really loved you for you who are etc.” This mental shift allows us to learn from the experience and most importantly, try again. While some might call this denial, others point to this as a key to resilience.
This particular immune system isn’t activated for every-day sadness, anger or anxiety but is reserved for those full-scale shocks to our psyche. Its primary concern is we don’t stay face down, in permanent rock bottom or experiencing night after night dark in our soul. We must eventually get up, dust ourselves off and continue to push through those obstacles.
It’s easy to feel anxious or angry, pre-suffering future shocks to our system. What this and many other studies have proven is although these shocks are inevitable, when they come, we have a built-in resilience to handle them. Upon realizing this, we can move forward with renewed confidence knowing we are stronger than we think. And perhaps, most importantly, we can enjoy the moment we are in.