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Lions Roar : January 2007
Your brain is very good at that. Bless it for doing that; that’s exactly what it ought to do. But there’s a catch: once things are understood, they tend to have less emotional con- sequence than when they’re not understood. That’s why most psychotherapy tries to help people understand their suffer- ing, because understanding it somewhat diminishes it. By the same token, once we understand good things, they’re not quite as good as when they were just delicious mysteries. While most of us uncritically accept information that makes us happy, you say that some people cannot reason their way to happiness. Does that mean that depression can be a more accurate reaction to life? Well, yes it can in some way. We know that if depressed and non-depressed people are both exposed to what we call “un- certain contingencies,” depressed people will provide more accurate responses. For example, I can bring people into my laboratory and say, “Here are two buttons, and when you press them, lights may or may not go on. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. You’ve got to decide if the but- tons are hooked up. Play with this apparatus, press the but- tons, and see if you think your presses correspond to the lights going on and off well enough for you to say that you are in control of the lights.” Depressed people will do that task more accurately. Non-depressed people will tend to err in the direction of saying, “I think my presses are controlling the lights.” Depressed people will correctly say, “These things aren’t even hooked up.” In certain circumscribed circumstances, then, depressed people are more accurate. At the same time, depressed people are ridiculously inaccurate about some very important mat- ters, such as what kind of good and bad things will happen to them in the future or how much others like them. Overall, then, you regard it as a good thing that we have this ingrained habit of uncritically accepting information that makes us happy? I do. My view of it is that there are many different ways to see the same thing, all of which are equally right. There is not a single fact of the matter most of the time. If you lose your job tomorrow, is that a good or a bad thing? One could make a case for dozens of different shades of interpretation of that event, all of which are equally true. The question is which one your brain most wants to believe. If you are like most people, your brain will find the most sanguine of the alternatives, the one that makes you the happiest. I’m not sure your brain is making a mistake. I’m not sure that finding the happiest of all the reasonable alternatives is unreasonable. There is only a problem when the brain goes shopping beyond the latitude of reason to put an unreasonable spin on events. What do you think of the fact that the idea of happiness is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution? The Constitution promises three things: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s interesting—it’s not the pursuit of liberty. Liberty you’re given, but all you’re given about happi- ness is the right to try to find it. And there’s a lot of wisdom “We know from data that altruistic acts are powerful sources of happiness. But a study shows most people take the selfish option.”