Can We Lead Ourselves to Happiness?

My brain-book club, aptly called the Brainiacs, has just started reading Daniel Gilbert's book "Stumbling on Happiness".

I've only just finished the Foreward, but I already had thoughts popping up that I wanted to share with you, so I thought I would maybe let you read along with me, so to speak.

First, I just have to say that I love Gilbert's style - funny, conversational....real. Like having a talk with him around the kitchen table. Exactly the feel I hope my own book, "The Way of the Brain", will have when it finally gets published.

Having said that, the interesting premise he takes in the Foreward is of thinking of our future self as a child of our present self — that in our present, we do our best to take care of our future self. Unfortunately, like so many children, there can be moments of ungratefulness or criticism about the choices we make for that Future Self (what were you thinking?? Really?….you thought I’d want that?).

A little quote will give you the flavour better than my summaries maybe:

“Why do they criticize our choice of romantic partners, second-guess our strategies for professional advancement, and pay good money to remove the tatoos we paid good money to get? Why do they experience regret and relief when they think about us, rather than pride and appreciation? We might understand this if we had neglected them, ignored them, mistreated them in some fundamental way — but damn it, we gave them the best years of our lives! How can they be disappointed when we accomplish our coveted goals, and why are they so damned giddy when they end up in precisely the spot we worked so hard to steer them clear of? Is there something wrong with them?

Or is there something wrong with us?”

I don’t know yet where Gilbert is going to go, in terms of brain science, but there is quite a bit of cognitive-behavioural research suggesting that we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy over the longer term or even at predicting how happy or sad certain events might make us feel.

What came to mind for me in all of this was the nonlinear dynamical nature of the brain. (Surprise!)  The brain is a “complex system”.

(Yes, it’s complicated too, but “complex system” refers to a nonlinear system that sits on the border between the obvious order of a linear a-leads-to-b system and the apparently random behavour of a chaotic system.)

And that means our lives — like our brains —  are also “complex systems” unfolding over time.

And the behaviour and outcomes of complex systems are unpredictable over the long-term. Think of it: how many of the big, honking changes in your life could you have predicted and planned for? The way you met your partner and that it was that particular person? The way you found your best job ever? The way you may have lost a job? The city you live in — did you predict from childhood you would be there? Maybe even your profession - I know I never predicted I would wind up a neuropsychologist!

Complex systems have several characteristics that create this unpredictability over the long term:

  • They are nonlinear: That means that change doesn’t always happen in a neat orderly step-by-step fashion. It might have little linear-moments, but over the longer term, change might happen gradually (like aging or completing a degree) or might happen as a dramatic, transformative, shift (like falling in love or having a serious car collision). Because we can’t predict how or when those dramatic shifts occur, we can’t plan for them.
  • “The Butterfly Effect”, more formally known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions: Think of those days when you miss your bus/train/green light and a whole series of events unfolds from that tiny bit of lateness. Maybe missing the train by 30 seconds means you wait 5 minutes for the next one, and then the driver stops for a coffee, which means you miss getting to the airport on time for your flight check-in. If that flight were to crash, that teeny-tiny 30 seconds might mean the difference between life and death. And that kind of little event ballooning to a huge change happens not infrequently, whether or not we can see the outcome so clearly. How many times have you met someone special because you happened to be in the same class or workplace, or gotten a job because you happened to mention to someone that you had a certain skill set or were looking — so often it’s those unexpected or unpredictable little events and meetings that can shift our world in a whole new direction. Can’t plan for that.
  • We and our brains are “iterative” in nature, meaning every change and event we encounter gets layered on top of where we’ve just come from: That’s how we learn — we are never “starting over” - we are layering new learning on top of old. Even if that new learning is repetition of past information, we aren’t meeting it for the first time and our brains aren’t interpreting it the same way they did the first time we engaged that information. So while we might anticipate a certain reaction to some planned future outcome, by the time we get there, we literally aren’t the same brains anymore and so our reactions might be different as well.
  • We are all part of multiple networks and those networks and their members are co-evolving:  Because of iteration, our brain evolves over time, and because of our inter-connections with other members of our networks, our changes impact on them and their changes impact on us, creating an ongoing spiral of mutual change.  It’s not possible for us to remain completely the same in our changing networks and environments. So again, because of the iterative nature of the brain, we can't be the same person we were when we crafted our plans and identified desires.

So what does this mean for our dreams and plans? Give it up? Do it anyway and prepare to be disappointed?

I suspect Gilbert will have some observations that can be applied to these questions (although he was very clear about not being a self-help book).  

For myself, I advocate not setting long-term “strategic plans” or getting to tied to personal long-term dreams for exactly the reasons I outlined above — our brains just aren’t the kind of neat, tidy, linear kind of systems —  go directly step -by-step from a to z — that allow for effective long-term planning.

But we can identify our current preferences and head in that direction by making shorter-term plans (daily, weekly, monthly) that lead us in that direction.  We can learn to expect shifts and changes in our preferences and be ready to flexibly adapt to the newer preference, which might be dramatically different or might be the next step in our plan, but with a twist.

We can keep ourselves open to the possibility of “Something Even Better” than what we envision now, limited by the brain and networks and context we have now.

And, maybe most importantly, in terms of Gilbert’s “ungrateful child” in our future, we can understand that we are always doing the best we can with where we’ve come from so far and where we are right now — and not expect ourselves to be able to predict an unpredictable future.

What about you? Where have you experienced the unpredictability of how your life has unfolded? Where have you discovered Something Even Better? Do you blame yourself for not having been able to see the future or do you value that you and your brain did the best for you that you could based on who and where you were at the time?