Is Your Brain Tricking You Out of Happiness?

happiness and the brainWhen my husband passed away, I went through a pretty steep learning curve while adjusting to taking care of our house and large garden. Manual labor and nature have never been my friends. I very quickly learned a few things, like screwing a sprinkler head onto a garden hose requires that you turn it off first; watering the plants in stilettos may aerate the lawn but will require an outfit change before work; and weed whackers are the devil’s garden tool. After purchasing what I perceived to be a needed part from Home Depot, it took me 30 minutes to put the weed whacker back together. I spent another 20 minutes getting it started but when I did, it took off with great enthusiasm. I wrestled it into submission and stuck it down near some grass that needed to go away. Then it fell apart, bits flying all over the garden. Some sort of manufacturing defect, I assumed. After repeating the whole process, the part I had just bought needed to be replaced. In frustration I launched it across the backyard, uttering unpleasant things about my husband leaving me. At this point a neighbor stuck his head over the fence and offered up his gardener. He was a bit of a recluse and the only time I had managed to speak to him was when my dog ran through his wet cement. So he must have been very inspired by the spectacle to come out and kindly give me his gardener’s number.

When I married my husband I knew that he had cancer. I had five years to imagine how I would manage on my own. I pictured myself as the elegant, tragic widow who exuded strength and composure, gracefully thanking people for their sympathy. Not once did I see myself screaming at airborne gardening tools. Actually, almost nothing about how I thought I would cope with grief turned into reality. Gardening aside, I did quite well with the process and found my way through some pretty dark times, but it wasn’t the journey I had built up in my mind.

Daniel Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote a very interesting book about how our brain perceives happiness, called Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert describes an experiment in which volunteers were shown a series of three letter trigrams, such as DXW USY OSQ etc. They were given one trigram and told that this one was special. The subjects were asked to figure out what made that particular series of letters special. In one test group, it did not take long for the subjects to figure out that the special trigram and only the special trigram contained the letter T. In a second test group, the special trigram was distinguished by the fact that it lacked the letter T. It did not matter how many set of trigrams the second test group analyzed, not one of them figured it out. It was easy to notice the presence of a letter but impossible to recognize the absence of one. Our brains also have this problem when creating images of the future. When we imagine what circumstances in our future will bring us happiness, our brains leave out a lot of important information.

Gilbert describes an example of how our brains work. “Our inattention to absences influences the way that we think about the future. Just as we do not remember every detail of a past event (what color socks did you wear to your high school graduation?) or see every detail of a current event (what color socks is the person behind you wearing at this very moment?), so do we fail to imagine every detail of a future event. . . . To illustrate this point I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of their eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. . . . People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined attending the funeral, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom. But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child. Indeed not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play . . . or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book . . . When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter. . . . it is difficult to consider what we may not be considering­—and this is one of the reasons why we so often misinterpret our emotional responses to future events.”

The idea of how our minds perceive and dwell on potential grief has been on my mind ever since a conversation with my sister-in-law. I am the appointed guardian for her three children should anything happen to her and my brother. I am actually the guardian for more than one family so I have a list of people who are not allowed to fly on the same plane together just in case I instantly turn into the old woman who lived in a shoe. I don’t remember how it came up while we were sitting in a theater waiting for the movie to start, but she expressed how much she has thought about what she would do if she found out she was dying. How would she pass the torch and prepare us all for the tragedy? How would she help me become the surrogate mother that her children would need? I have always imagined that if my brother and sister-in-law died, I would move into their house, send the backyard chickens to a “farm” upstate, hire a nanny, and put a psychiatrist on retainer for my occasional nervous breakdowns. The thought of losing them is so horrific that it’s probably best not to think about it, but that doesn’t stop me. I should have learned through the death of my husband, that no matter how you imagine you will cope, how long you plan or how much information you put into the scenarios of how your new life would be, you are wrong. You think you are preparing yourself for a possible outcome, but you are actually just making yourself unhappy.

It is almost impossible to make yourself stop daydreaming about the future. Who hasn’t imagined what they would do if they were told they had cancer, just found out they were adopted, or Johnny Depp showed up at their door begging to let him whisk them away to his private island? What else is there to do during the daily commute? We get out of bed and go to work, workout at the gym and brush our teeth. Almost everything we do is designed to give ourselves a better future, so how can we not think about it? Our brains are not built to only live in the moment and we are going to spend most of our time imaging and planning the future. But we do have some control over whether we allow our minds to obsess over it. We need to understand that the brain cannot give us a complete, realistic vision of what will make us happy. Just as your brain leaves out the good stuff when you picture a future tragedy, it also leaves out the bad stuff when you imagine your perfect life.

My life as a tragically-young widow has turned out better than I expected. Now I live in a garden-free apartment where I am doing my best to keep a house plant alive. I often dream about being married again and having a family. Somehow that vision never involves children throwing up in the back of the car, pee all over my bathroom floor, or being tricked into eating food that has already been chewed; all things that have happened to me because of my brother’s children. I have the best of both worlds and I am trying very hard to keep my imagination in check and be content. And when Johnny Depp shows up, I will feign surprise and wonder if my life could be any more perfect.

Thoughts?

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