Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert talks about the science of happiness at CU Denver

For 75 minutes, University of Colorado Denver alumnus and bestselling author Daniel Gilbert, PhD, tickled, prodded and enlightened the collective “life simulators” — the frontal lobes — of an audience as he explained the science of happiness.

Gilbert, CU Denver Psychology Department “Outstanding Graduate of 1981,” spoke to a packed Terrace Room this afternoon. His appearance — his first at CU Denver since he graduated — was cosponsored by the School of Public Affairs and the Department of Psychology.

Now a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of the bestselling book, “Stumbling On Happiness,” Gilbert presented “Happiness: Four Things Your Mother Didn’t Tell You.”

Gilbert explained that happiness is an evolutionary human trait, having never been much of a factor during early human existence. “For most of human history,” he said, “life was short, nasty and brutish.”

But the human brain evolved, he said, becoming three times larger than our ancestors’ brains of 2 million years ago. Most of the growth occurred in the front lobe, which acts as a “life simulator.”

“The frontal lobe allows you to learn from experiences you’ve never had,” Gilbert said. “Unlike other animals, we can imagine. It means you can mentally simulate things and decide without trying them whether they’re good or bad.”

However, he said, the life simulator can often lead us in the wrong direction. “The reason why you’re not happy when you get what you aim for is because we aim for the wrong things,” Gilbert said.

He gave an example of professors aspiring to become tenured. When asked to predict their level of happiness in the first five years after being granted tenure compared to being denied, the happiness levels were much greater for the former. However, when people were measured for happiness after getting tenure, their happiness levels were statistically the same as those who didn’t receive tenure.

When we imagine things, Gilbert said, we leave a lot of things out. For each of his “four things your mother didn’t tell you” regarding happiness, he gave several science-based examples.

The “four things” are:

1. What we don’t imagine matters as much as what we do. For example, the tenure comparison.

2. When we get to the future we won’t be living in the past. For example, subjects in two rooms were asked how much they would enjoy a bag of Lays potato chips before they ate them. In the first room an assortment of chocolate was on the table next to the potato chips. In the second room, Spam and other canned meats were also on the table. Subjects in the second room predicted they’d enjoy the chips more. After eating the chips and asked their satisfaction level, subjects in both rooms enjoyed the chips about equally.

3. We are more resilient than we realize. “We have the ability to rationalize — the ability to look at things in new ways that make us happier than the old ways did.” He gave examples of four people who had resigned from Congress in disgrace, gone to prison, didn’t get rich and weren’t selected as a member of The Beatles (Pete Best) who, despite the misfortunes, were happy for what they’d gone through.

4. Your mother doesn’t know everything. He noted how your mother will tell you that the keys to happiness are marriage, money and children. While the first two on the list generally do show happiness payoffs, the latter — children, especially when they are younger — tend to generally diminish people’s happiness levels, according to survey data.

Gilbert, who has also hosted the PBS series, “This Emotional Life,” shared another interesting study that asked college students the simple question: Would you rather take a job paying $90,000 where everyone else makes $80,000, or a job paying $100,000 where everyone else makes $110,000? The students invariably said they’d rather make $90,000 because they didn’t want to work at a place where everyone, working in the identical positions, was making more than they were.

The study shows the power of the mind to compare and mis-predict the future. “You think the comparison you are making now in the present is the comparisons you’ll be making in the future,” he said. “Odds are you will not.”

(Photo: Harvard University Professor Daniel Gilbert talks about the science of happiness in the Terrace Room at CU Denver on April 16.)

CU in the City logo