Why Our Gut Lies

Probably the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn since starting this blog is this: the smart thing rarely feels like the right thing. I literally made the conscious decision to change my behavior – which, at the time, was traveling almost non-stop and living in exciting coastal cities – because even though I kept trying to be happy, I wasn’t happy.

As I researched happiness, I learned of Dan Gilbert’s studies which had basically shown that the key to satisfaction in life, statistically, lay in focusing on family and friends. These were not things I was focusing on at the time, and even though every instinct I had screamed against it, I moved back to Madison, WI.

It made no sense at the time. My relationship with Natasha was shaky; it made traveling harder; it was in a different time zone than most of my clients, and the local opportunities for more work were limited at best. But that was where my family and a lot of friends were, and so I drove from Seattle to Wisconsin, just ahead of a winter storm.

Guess what? Now, a couple of years later, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. But it still feels like I’m going against my gut.

You’re Not a Special Snowflake

Daniel Gilbert has also explained why that is, as well. He references another great scientist, Daniel Bernoulli, who figured out mathematically how we can always make the decisions in life most likely to make us happy. It looks complicated, but it’s really not:

Expected Value = the product of two things (odds of gain) x (value of gain)
Expected Value = the product of two things (odds of gain) x (value of gain)

His TED Talk explains it more clearly (and is amazingly entertaining) but what’s poignant is when he explains why this idea actually didn’t work to change the wold and let us all make the right decisions:

…our brains were evolved for a very different world than the one in which we are living. They were evolved for a world in which people lived in very small groups, rarely met anybody who was terribly different from themselves, had rather short lives in which there were few choices and the highest priority was to eat and mate today…Bernoulli’s little formula, allows us, it tells us how we should think in a world for which nature never designed us. That explains why we are so bad at using it, but it also explains why it is so terribly important that we become good, fast.

He relates it to more big concepts like global warming and the like. I believe that’s important, but the target of this blog is “Practical tips to make hard times happier.” So here’s the tip: when you’re making a decision, stop going with your gut. Go with what percentages tell you.

The odds are that there have been other people in similar situations. If you look at what worked for them, the odds are that they will work for you. If I told you that I was going to send you to a casino where the odds were stacked in your favor, that would be pretty good, right? This is a way you can turn your entire life into that kind of place.

The problem is, it won’t feel like that. It is the tendency for a person to: “…believe that he is the only person who can possibly experience whatever feelings he might be experiencing at that particular time and that these experiences are unique to him.” (Wikipedia, the Personal Fable). It’s not that there’s anything wrong with having a personal narrative; that’s quite useful. The problem comes when we start believing that our personal narrative is a unique one with more relevance than anyone else’s.

It’s a joke by Garrison Keillor, who talks about a place called Lake Woebegone where “…everyone is a little above average.” The fact is, it’s an actual complex (especially among Americans): we all think we’re above average. It has to do with neurochemicals in healthy brains (depressed people, it turns out, have a more accurate and realistic view of the world) so it’s ok to feel that way. It means you’re human!

As much as I love Han Solo when he shut off C-3PO for telling him the odds, the fact is that the odds are useful ways to figure out what’s going on – and our guts are notoriously bad at applying Bernoulli’s principle and actually making the right decision.

However, I can point to at least one case where I managed to get past my gut instinct, do the “smart” thing (as in, playing the odds) and I have this astonishing news to report: it’s much easier to predict what happens will happen when, unlike most people, you admit that you are, in fact, like most people.

And like most people who focus more on their family and friends and doing meaningful work: I’m happy.

Take from that what you will. But do watch Mr. Gilbert; he’s truly a joy.

1 thought on “Why Our Gut Lies”

  1. I love this. We have always worked towards contentment rather than happiness, and have found ourselves very happy indeed.

    Not expecting that we’re immune from natural law, or that we could spend without consequence, or rise to great corporate heights meant we prioritized our well being ahead of other goals. Even when those other goals seems SOOOO tasty and JUST within reach.

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