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  • When you have 21 minutes to speak,

  • two million years seems like a really long time.

  • But evolutionarily, two million years is nothing.

  • And yet in two million years,

  • the human brain has nearly tripled in mass,

  • going from the one-and-a-quarter pound brain of our ancestor here, Habilis,

  • to the almost three-pound meatloaf

  • that everybody here has between their ears.

  • What is it about a big brain

  • that nature was so eager for every one of us to have one?

  • Well, it turns out when brains triple in size,

  • they don't just get three times bigger; they gain new structures.

  • And one of the main reasons our brain got so big is because it got a new part,

  • called the "frontal lobe."

  • Particularly, a part called the "pre-frontal cortex."

  • What does a pre-frontal cortex do for you that should justify

  • the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull

  • in the blink of evolutionary time?

  • It turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things,

  • but one of the most important things it does is an experience simulator.

  • Pilots practice in flight simulators

  • so that they don't make real mistakes in planes.

  • Human beings have this marvelous adaptation

  • that they can actually have experiences in their heads

  • before they try them out in real life.

  • This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do,

  • and that no other animal can do quite like we can.

  • It's a marvelous adaptation.

  • It's 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • All of you have done this.

  • Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver-and-onion ice cream,

  • and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, "Yuck."

  • It's because, without leaving your armchair,

  • you can simulate that flavor and say "yuck" before you make it.

  • Let's see how your experience simulators are working.

  • Let's just run a quick diagnostic

  • before I proceed with the rest of the talk.

  • Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate.

  • You can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer.

  • One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars.

  • And the other is becoming paraplegic.

  • (Laughter)

  • Just give it a moment of thought.

  • You probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought.

  • Interestingly, there are data on these two groups of people,

  • data on how happy they are.

  • And this is exactly what you expected, isn't it?

  • But these aren't the data. I made these up!

  • These are the data.

  • You failed the pop quiz, and you're hardly five minutes into the lecture.

  • Because the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs,

  • and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics

  • are equally happy with their lives.

  • Don't feel too bad about failing the first pop quiz,

  • because everybody fails all of the pop quizzes all of the time.

  • The research that my laboratory has been doing,

  • that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing,

  • has revealed something really quite startling to us,

  • something we call the "impact bias,"

  • which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly.

  • For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes

  • are more different than in fact they really are.

  • 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.

  • This almost floors me --

  • a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people

  • suggests that if it happened over three months ago,

  • with only a few exceptions,

  • it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

  • Why?

  • Because happiness can be synthesized.

  • Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, "I am the happiest man alive.

  • I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity.

  • I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me."

  • What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head?

  • Well, it turns out it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all off us have.

  • Human beings have something

  • that we might think of as a "psychological immune system."

  • A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes,

  • that help them change their views of the world,

  • so that they can feel better

  • about the worlds in which they find themselves.

  • Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine.

  • Unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it.

  • We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.

  • Now, you don't need me to give you

  • too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect.

  • Though I'm going to show you some experimental evidence,

  • you don't have to look very far for evidence.

  • As a challenge to myself, since I say this once in a while in lectures,

  • I took a copy of the New York Times

  • and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness.

  • Here are three guys synthesizing happiness.

  • "I am so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, mentally

  • and almost every other way."

  • "I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience."

  • "I believe it turned out for the best."

  • Who are these characters who are so damn happy?

  • The first one is Jim Wright.

  • Some of you are old enough to remember:

  • he was the chairman of the House of Representatives

  • and he resigned in disgrace

  • when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich

  • found out about a shady book deal he had done.

  • He lost everything.

  • The most powerful Democrat in the country lost everything.

  • He lost his money, he lost his power.

  • What does he have to say all these years later?

  • "I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally

  • and in almost every other way."

  • What other way would there be to be better off?

  • Vegetably? Minerally? Animally?

  • He's pretty much covered them there.

  • Moreese Bickham is somebody you've never heard of.

  • Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released.

  • He was 78 years old.

  • He'd spent 37 years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary

  • for a crime he didn't commit.

  • [He was ultimately released

  • for good behavior halfway through his sentence.]

  • What did he say about his experience?

  • "I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience." Glorious!

  • He is not saying,

  • "Well, there were some nice guys. They had a gym."

  • "Glorious,"

  • a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience.

  • Harry S. Langerman uttered these words, and he's somebody you might have known

  • but didn't, because in 1949 he read a little article in the paper

  • about a hamburger stand owned by two brothers named McDonalds.

  • And he thought, "That's a really neat idea!"

  • So he went to find them. They said,

  • "We can give you a franchise on this for 3,000 bucks."

  • Harry went back to New York, asked his brother, an investment banker,

  • to loan him the $3,000, and his brother's immortal words were,

  • "You idiot, nobody eats hamburgers."

  • He wouldn't lend him the money,

  • and of course, six months later Ray Kroc had exactly the same idea.

  • It turns out people do eat hamburgers,

  • and Ray Kroc, for a while, became the richest man in America.

  • And then finally -- you know, the best of all possible worlds --

  • some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best,

  • who was the original drummer for the Beatles,

  • until they, you know, sent him out on an errand and snuck away

  • and picked up Ringo on a tour.

  • Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed

  • -- yes, he's still a drummer; yes, he's a studio musician --

  • he had this to say: "I'm happier than I would have been with the Beatles."

  • Okay. There's something important to be learned from these people,

  • and it is the secret of happiness.

  • Here it is, finally to be revealed.

  • First: accrue wealth, power, and prestige, then lose it.

  • (Laughter)

  • Second: spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.

  • (Laughter)

  • Third: make somebody else really, really rich.

  • And finally: never ever join the Beatles.

  • (Laughter)

  • OK. Now I, like Ze Frank, can predict your next thought,

  • which is, "Yeah, right."

  • Because when people synthesize happiness,

  • as these gentlemen seem to have done,

  • we all smile at them, but we kind of roll our eyes and say,

  • "Yeah right, you never really wanted the job."

  • "Oh yeah, right. You really didn't have that much in common with her,

  • and you figured that out just about the time

  • she threw the engagement ring in your face."

  • We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness

  • is not of the same quality as what we might call "natural happiness."

  • What are these terms?

  • Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted,

  • and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don't get what we wanted.

  • And in our society, we have a strong belief

  • that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.

  • Why do we have that belief?

  • Well, it's very simple.

  • What kind of economic engine would keep churning

  • if we believed that not getting what we want

  • could make us just as happy as getting it?

  • With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard,

  • a shopping mall full of Zen monks

  • is not going to be particularly profitable,

  • because they don't want stuff enough.

  • (Laughter)

  • I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness

  • is every bit as real and enduring

  • as the kind of happiness you stumble upon

  • when you get exactly what you were aiming for.

  • I'm a scientist, so I'm going to do this not with rhetoric,

  • but by marinating you in a little bit of data.

  • Let me first show you an experimental paradigm that is used

  • to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness among regular old folks.

  • And this isn't mine.

  • It's a 50-year-old paradigm called the "free choice paradigm."

  • It's very simple.

  • You bring in, say, six objects,

  • and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked.

  • In this case, because this experiment uses them,

  • these are Monet prints.

  • So, everybody can rank these Monet prints

  • from the one they like the most, to the one they like the least.

  • Now we give you a choice:

  • "We happen to have some extra prints in the closet.

  • We're going to give you one as your prize to take home.

  • We happen to have number three and number four," we tell the subject.

  • This is a bit of a difficult choice,

  • because neither one is preferred strongly to the other,

  • but naturally, people tend to pick number three

  • because they liked it a little better than number four.

  • Sometime later -- it could be 15 minutes; it could be 15 days --

  • the same stimuli are put before the subject,

  • and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli.

  • "Tell us how much you like them now."

  • What happens?

  • Watch as happiness is synthesized.

  • This is the result that has been replicated over and over again.

  • You're watching happiness be synthesized.

  • Would you like to see it again?

  • Happiness!

  • "The one I got is really better than I thought!

  • That other one I didn't get sucks!"

  • That's the synthesis of happiness.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, what's the right response to that?

  • "Yeah, right!"

  • Now, here's the experiment we did,

  • and I hope this is going to convince you

  • that "Yeah, right!" was not the right response.

  • We did this experiment with a group of patients

  • who had anterograde amnesia.

  • These are hospitalized patients.

  • Most of them have Korsakoff's syndrome,

  • a polyneuritic psychosis.

  • They drank way too much, and they can't make new memories.

  • OK? They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself,

  • and then leave the room,

  • when you come back, they don't know who you are.

  • We took our Monet prints to the hospital.

  • And we asked these patients to rank them

  • from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least.

  • We then gave them the choice between number three and number four.

  • Like everybody else, they said,

  • "Gee, thanks Doc! That's great! I could use a new print.

  • I'll take number three."

  • We explained we would have number three mailed to them.

  • We gathered