by David B. Bohl
Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology, has done some ground-breaking and very intriguing research into the science of happiness. Dr. Gilbert has discovered, for instance, that we don’t enjoy things as much as we expect.
This research has an interesting opposite side, which is that things are never as bad as we expect. Dr. Gilbert gives an example of Democrats who thought they would be “devastated” if George W. Bush won re-election. Gilbert’s research showed that the Democrats involved in the study were not nearly as devastated, the day after the election, as they expected to be. Their reports of their feelings were more positive than they expected.
However, several weeks later, they remembered being as devastated as they had expected.
Clearly there is a disconnect between what we expect and what we actually get, and another disconnect between what we actually get and what we later think we got.
This disconnect can be used to help us deal with difficult situations, in two ways.
First, when anticipating something unpleasant, we can remember that there is scientific proof that things are not as bad, when experienced, as they are when imagined beforehand.
We can use this knowledge to calm ourselves and remind ourselves that we’re not really going to experience as much pain, sadness, or other negative feelings as we expect.
We can also record our feelings immediately after the experience, so that we can later look back and remember that it was not as bad as we expected, even if, later, we remember it being extremely hard or very painful.
Our minds play tricks on us, and one of the tricks they play is imagining that something will be absolutely horrible. This turns out to be a useful trick, because in fact things are rarely, if ever, as bad as we expect, and we are always able to deal with them more easily because of that.
But the trick our memory plays of remembering things as being exactly that horrible is a trick we could do without, and which we can do without by making notes, or writing in a journal, what really happened and what it really felt like.
Dr. Gilbert’s research suggests that, when it comes to happiness, we don’t know our own minds, and this is equally true of less pleasant experiences, from a trip to the dentist to being fired.
Humans are remarkably resilient individuals. We can cope with things we never believed we were capable of surviving, and we can come through these experiences feeling stronger than before we went through them.
But we don’t think that’s true, because of the tricks our minds play.
This week, try these tips to experience your life more authentically.
- Before a dreaded meeting or other event, write down your expectations.
- Spend some time thinking about how you can change those expectations to more positive ones.
- Write down your exact reaction after the event; compare it to your expectations and note how things were better than expected.