As many of you know, I’m an admitted science junkie and bibliophile. One of my favorite genres in the last few years is the strangely specific realm into which popular press neuroscience and behavioral economics books fall. There’s just something magical about the way Malcolm Gladwell can spin a a problem so mundane that we didn’t even know it was a problem, into an absorbing read about a mental battle of epic repercussions. And don’t even get me started on Freakonomics. The ability to weave mind blowing statistics into beautiful and captivating narratives is not an easy feat. But when properly executed, these books are better page turners than the last bestselling novel.
Lately though, I’ve been stuck with a few of these books lacking original ideas. If you’re merely going to parrot theories I’ve learned in my studies without giving it a fresh spin or putting it into a meaningful and novel perspective, don’t bother. If you’re merely going to outline some of Gladwell’s juiciest nuggets, jumble up the order, and paraphrase, well…it was more interesting the first time (also, have you heard of this thing called plagiarizing?). And if your stats are dubious, please find a new profession.
I’ve been lucky enough to have more time to read in the last few months than I probably have since I started high school, and in addition to reading a few Harry Potter books for the umpteenth time, the random classic, and occasional bestseller, I recently found a new sciency psych book to read. It was better than average, and had some ideas that really got me thinking.
The book was Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (recommended to me by someone who shares my appetite for brainy books (pun intended)). The theme was pretty much how we have no idea what will make us happy in the future, so it is pointless to worry about it (based on scientific evidence, not some “self-help” mumbo jumbo). I’m the type of person that is always thinking about the future, trying to do things now to get me to the place I want to be (even though I have no idea where that is), rarely ever able to just settle my brain, embrace the now, relax, and fully enjoy the moment. I’m also terrible at making decisions, because I over-think everything. I put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself. As this something I’m really trying to work on while I’m here studying and exploring, several passages really resonated with me.
“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future… We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.”
Imagination is awesome. Making goals and chasing dreams are fantastic. But we are pretty much terrible at distinguishing how something will make us feel in the future! We can set goals and push ourselves to achieve them, but once we get there we may find that it’s not what we really want. This should take away heaps of pressure! It’s not our ability (or lack thereof) to attain a goal that factors into our future happiness, because of our inability to imagine feeling hungry when we are currently quite full. You can think about the state, but you can’t feel it if it is in opposition to what you are currently feeling, because despite what our minds sometimes tell us, the present always takes precedent.
“Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.”
Control is such a funny desire. Sometimes, I feel like I’d be much happier if I had someone following me around just for the sake of making all of my daily decisions. I get stressed enough choosing between types of ice cream for heaven’s sake, don’t make me decide on something meaningful…Other times though, it’s terrifying to feel out of control. It’s terrifying to face the unknown. So we need strike a balance of working hard and not procrastinating, but also letting go and letting God. Loss of control may be scary, but in the end, things happen for a reason. AND, once something becomes our own, we are psychologically designed to make the best out of it (sometimes we just have to let ourselves do so – it is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience). The present is the only moment that we can authentically experience without the distortion of memory (past) or imagination (future), so we should focus on that a whole lot more.
“In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did… we just can’t make the best of a fate until it is inescapably, inevitably, and irrevocably ours… (because) we are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant situation that we cannot escape than of one we can.”
So let’s go all in. Don’t be a fence-sitter. Decisions are daunting, but they shouldn’t be – we don’t have a good idea of what will make us happy in the future anyway! But a lack of decision, lack of movement, lack of passion and drive – these will inevitably not bring us happiness. Roosevelt once said that the worst decision we can make is no decision – and this applies to not only international relations and diplomacy, but almost every aspect of life. The key to happiness is not making the right decision about our futures, but making a decision, and letting our minds make it our own.