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Annotated captions of Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy? in English

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When you have 21 minutes to speak,

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two million years seems like a really long time.

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But evolutionarily, two million years is nothing.

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And yet in two million years the human brain has nearly tripled in mass,

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going from the one-and-a-quarter pound brain of our ancestor here, Habilis,

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to the almost three-pound meatloaf that everybody here has between their ears.

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What is it about a big brain that nature was so eager for every one of us to have one?

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Well, it turns out when brains triple in size,

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they don't just get three times bigger; they gain new structures.

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And one of the main reasons our brain got so big is because it got a new part,

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called the "frontal lobe." And particularly, a part called the "pre-frontal cortex."

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Now what does a pre-frontal cortex do for you that should justify

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the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull in the blink of evolutionary time?

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Well, it turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things,

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but one of the most important things it does

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is it is an experience simulator.

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Flight pilots practice in flight simulators

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so that they don't make real mistakes in planes.

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Human beings have this marvelous adaptation

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that they can actually have experiences in their heads

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before they try them out in real life.

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This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do,

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and that no other animal can do quite like we can. It's a marvelous adaptation.

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It's up there with opposable thumbs and standing upright and language

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as one of the things that got our species out of the trees

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and into the shopping mall.

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Now -- (Laughter) -- all of you have done this.

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I mean, you know,

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Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver-and-onion ice cream,

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and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, "Yuck."

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It's because, without leaving your armchair,

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you can simulate that flavor and say "yuck" before you make it.

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Let's see how your experience simulators are working.

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Let's just run a quick diagnostic
before I proceed with the rest of the talk.

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Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate,

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and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer.

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One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars.

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And the other is becoming paraplegic.

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So, just give it a moment of thought.

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You probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought.

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Interestingly, there are data on these two groups of people,

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data on how happy they are.

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And this is exactly what you expected, isn't it?

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But these aren't the data. I made these up!

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These are the data. You failed the pop quiz, and you're hardly five minutes into the lecture.

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Because the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs,

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and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics

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are equally happy with their lives.

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Now, don't feel too bad about failing the first pop quiz,

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because everybody fails all of the pop quizzes all of the time.

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The research that my laboratory has been doing,

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that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing,

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have revealed something really quite startling to us,

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something we call the "impact bias,"

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which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly.

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For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes

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are more different than in fact they really are.

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From field studies to laboratory studies,

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we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner,

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getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test,

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on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration

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than people expect them to have.

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In fact, a recent study -- this almost floors me --

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a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people

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suggests that if it happened over three months ago,

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with only a few exceptions,

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it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

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Why?

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Because happiness can be synthesized.

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Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, "I am the happiest man alive.

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I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity.

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I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me."

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What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head?

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Well, it turns out it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all off us have.

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Human beings have something that we might think of as a "psychological immune system."

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A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes,

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that help them change their views of the world,

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so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.

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Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine.

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Unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it. (Laughter)

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We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.

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Now, you don't need me to give you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness,

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I suspect. Though I'm going to show you some experimental evidence,

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you don't have to look very far for evidence.

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As a challenge to myself, since I say this once in a while in lectures,

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I took a copy of the New York Times and tried to find some instances of people synthesizing happiness.

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And here are three guys synthesizing happiness.

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"I am so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, mentally

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and almost every other way." "I don't have one minute's regret.

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It was a glorious experience." "I believe it turned out for the best."

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Who are these characters who are so damn happy?

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Well, the first one is Jim Wright.

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Some of you are old enough to remember: he was the chairman of the House of Representatives

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and he resigned in disgrace when this young Republican named Newt Gingrich

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found out about a shady book deal he had done.

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He lost everything. The most powerful Democrat in the country,

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he lost everything.

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He lost his money; he lost his power.

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What does he have to say all these years later about it?

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"I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally

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and in almost every other way."

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What other way would there be to be better off?

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Vegetably? Minerally? Animally? He's pretty much covered them there.

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Moreese Bickham is somebody you've never heard of.

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Moreese Bickham uttered these words upon being released.

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He was 78 years old. He spent 37 years

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in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit.

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He was ultimately exonerated,

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at the age of 78, through DNA evidence.

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And what did he have to say about his experience?

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"I don't have one minute's regret. It was a glorious experience."

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Glorious! This guy is not saying,

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"Well, you know, there were some nice guys. They had a gym."

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It's "glorious,"

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a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience.

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Harry S. Langerman uttered these words, and he's somebody you might have known

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but didn't, because in 1949 he read a little article in the paper

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about a hamburger stand owned by these two brothers named McDonalds.

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And he thought, "That's a really neat idea!"

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So he went to find them. They said,

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"We can give you a franchise on this for 3,000 bucks."

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Harry went back to New York, asked his brother who's an investment banker

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to loan him the 3,000 dollars,

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and his brother's immortal words were,

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"You idiot, nobody eats hamburgers."

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He wouldn't lend him the money, and of course six months later

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Ray Croc had exactly the same idea.

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It turns out people do eat hamburgers,

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and Ray Croc, for a while, became the richest man in America.

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And then finally -- you know, the best of all possible worlds --

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some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best,

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who was the original drummer for the Beatles,

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until they, you know, sent him out on an errand and snuck away

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and picked up Ringo on a tour.

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Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed

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-- yes, he's still a drummer; yes, he's a studio musician --

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he had this to say: "I'm happier than I would have been with the Beatles."

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Okay. There's something important to be learned from these people,

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and it is the secret of happiness.

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Here it is, finally to be revealed.

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First: accrue wealth, power, and prestige,

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then lose it. (Laughter)

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Second: spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.

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(Laughter) Third: make somebody else really, really rich. (Laughter)

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And finally: never ever join the Beatles. (Laughter)

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OK. Now I, like Ze Frank, can predict your next thought,

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which is, "Yeah, right." Because when

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people synthesize happiness, as these gentlemen seem to have done,

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we all smile at them, but we kind of roll our eyes and say,

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"Yeah right, you never really wanted the job."

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"Oh yeah, right. You really didn't

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have that much in common with her,

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and you figured that out just about the time

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she threw the engagement ring in your face."

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We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness

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is not of the same quality as what we might call "natural happiness."

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What are these terms?

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Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted,

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and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don't get what we wanted.

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And in our society, we have a strong belief

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that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.

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Why do we have that belief?

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Well, it's very simple. What kind of economic engine

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would keep churning

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if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?

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With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard,

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a shopping mall full of Zen monks

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is not going to be particularly profitable

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because they don't want stuff enough.

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I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness

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is every bit as real and enduring

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as the kind of happiness you stumble upon

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when you get exactly what you were aiming for.

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Now, I'm a scientist, so I'm going to do this not with rhetoric,

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but by marinating you in a little bit of data.

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Let me first show you an experimental paradigm that is used

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to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness

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among regular old folks. And this isn't mine.

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This is a 50-year-old paradigm called the "free choice paradigm."

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It's very simple.

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You bring in, say, six objects,

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and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked.

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In this case, because the experiment I'm going to tell you about uses them,

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these are Monet prints.

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So, everybody can rank these Monet prints

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from the one they like the most, to the one they like the least.

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Now we give you a choice:

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"We happen to have some extra prints in the closet.

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We're going to give you one as your prize to take home.

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We happen to have number three and number four,"

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we tell the subject. This is a bit of a difficult choice,

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because neither one is preferred strongly to the other,

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but naturally, people tend to pick number three

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because they liked it a little better than number four.

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Sometime later -- it could be 15 minutes; it could be 15 days --

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the same stimuli are put before the subject,

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and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli.

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"Tell us how much you like them now."

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What happens? Watch as happiness is synthesized.

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This is the result that has been replicated over and over again.

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You're watching happiness be synthesized.

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Would you like to see it again? Happiness!

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"The one I got is really better than I thought!

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That other one I didn't get sucks!"

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(Laughter) That's the synthesis of happiness.

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Now what's the right response to that? "Yeah, right!"

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Now, here's the experiment we did,

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and I would hope this is going to convince you that

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"Yeah, right!" was not the right response.

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We did this experiment with a group of patients

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who had anterograde amnesia. These are hospitalized patients.

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Most of them have Korsakoff's syndrome,

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a polyneuritic psychosis that -- they drank way too much,

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and they can't make new memories.

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OK? They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself,

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and then leave the room,

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when you come back, they don't know who you are.

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We took our Monet prints to the hospital.

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And we asked these patients to rank them

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from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least.

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We then gave them the choice between number three and number four.

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Like everybody else, they said,

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"Gee, thanks Doc! That's great! I could use a new print.

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I'll take number three."

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We explained we would have number three mailed to them.

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We gathered up our materials and we went out of the room,

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and counted to a half hour.

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Back into the room, we say, "Hi, we're back."

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The patients, bless them, say, "Ah, Doc, I'm sorry,

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I've got a memory problem; that's why I'm here.

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If I've met you before, I don't remember."

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"Really, Jim, you don't remember? I was just here with the Monet prints?"

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"Sorry, Doc, I just don't have a clue."

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"No problem, Jim. All I want you to do is rank these for me

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from the one you like the most to the one you like the least."

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What do they do? Well, let's first check and make sure

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they're really amnesiac. We ask these

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amnesiac patients to tell us which one they own,

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which one they chose last time, which one is theirs.

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And what we find is amnesiac patients just guess.

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These are normal controls, where if I did this with you,

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all of you would know which print you chose.

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But if I do this with amnesiac patients,

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they don't have a clue. They can't pick their print out of a lineup.

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Here's what normal controls do: they synthesize happiness.

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Right? This is the change in liking score,

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the change from the first time they ranked to the second time they ranked.

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Normal controls show

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-- that was the magic I showed you;

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now I'm showing it to you in graphical form --

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"The one I own is better than I thought. The one I didn't own,

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the one I left behind, is not as good as I thought."

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Amnesiacs do exactly the same thing. Think about this result.

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These people like better the one they own,

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but they don't know they own it.

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"Yeah, right" is not the right response!

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What these people did when they synthesized happiness

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is they really, truly changed

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their affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster.

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They're not just saying it because they own it,

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because they don't know they own it.

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Now, when psychologists show you bars,

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you know that they are showing you averages of lots of people.

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And yet, all of us have this psychological immune system,

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this capacity to synthesize happiness,

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but some of us do this trick better than others.

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And some situations allow anybody to do it more effectively

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than other situations do.

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It turns out that freedom

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-- the ability to make up your mind and change your mind --

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is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose

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among all those delicious futures and find the one that you would most enjoy.

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But freedom to choose

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-- to change and make up your mind -- is the enemy of synthetic happiness.

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And I'm going to show you why.

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Dilbert already knows, of course.

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You're reading the cartoon as I'm talking.

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"Dogbert's tech support. How may I abuse you?"

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"My printer prints a blank page after every document."

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"Why would you complain about getting free paper?"

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"Free? Aren't you just giving me my own paper?"

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"Egad, man! Look at the quality of the free paper

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compared to your lousy regular paper!

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Only a fool or a liar would say that they look the same!"

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"Ah! Now that you mention it, it does seem a little silkier!"

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"What are you doing?"

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"I'm helping people accept the things they cannot change." Indeed.

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The psychological immune system works best

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when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped.

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This is the difference between dating and marriage, right?

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I mean, you go out on a date with a guy,

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and he picks his nose; you don't go out on another date.

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You're married to a guy and he picks his nose?

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Yeah, he has a heart of gold;

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don't touch the fruitcake. Right? (Laughter)

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You find a way to be happy with what's happened.

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Now what I want to show you is that

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people don't know this about themselves,

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and not knowing this can work to our supreme disadvantage.

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Here's an experiment we did at Harvard.

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We created a photography course, a black-and-white photography course,

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and we allowed students to come in and learn how to use a darkroom.

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So we gave them cameras; they went around campus;

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15:31

they took 12 pictures of their favorite professors and their dorm room and their dog,

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15:33

and all the other things they wanted to have Harvard memories of.

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15:36

They bring us the camera; we make up a contact sheet;

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15:38

they figure out which are the two best pictures;

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15:40

and we now spend six hours teaching them about darkrooms.

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15:42

And they blow two of them up,

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15:44

and they have two gorgeous eight-by-10 glossies of

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15:46

meaningful things to them, and we say,

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15:49

"Which one would you like to give up?"

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15:50

They say, "I have to give one up?"

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15:53

"Oh, yes. We need one as evidence of the class project.

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15:56

So you have to give me one. You have to make a choice.

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15:59

You get to keep one, and I get to keep one."

tedtalks 15:59
16:02

Now, there are two conditions in this experiment.

tedtalks 16:02
16:05

In one case, the students are told, "But you know,

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16:08

if you want to change your mind, I'll always have the other one here,

tedtalks 16:08
16:12

and in the next four days, before I actually mail it to headquarters,

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16:15

I'll be glad to" -- (Laughter) -- yeah, "headquarters" --

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16:18

"I'll be glad to swap it out with you. In fact,

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16:19

I'll come to your dorm room and give

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16:22

-- just give me an email. Better yet, I'll check with you.

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16:25

You ever want to change your mind, it's totally returnable."

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16:28

The other half of the students are told exactly the opposite:

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16:30

"Make your choice. And by the way,

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16:33

the mail is going out, gosh, in two minutes, to England.

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16:35

Your picture will be winging its way over the Atlantic.

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16:37

You will never see it again."

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16:40

Now, half of the students in each of these conditions

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16:42

are asked to make predictions about how much

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16:45

they're going to come to like the picture that they keep

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16:47

and the picture they leave behind.

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16:50

Other students are just sent back to their little dorm rooms

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16:55

and they are measured over the next three to six days

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16:57

on their liking, satisfaction with the pictures.

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16:58

And look at what we find.

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17:01

First of all, here's what students think is going to happen.

tedtalks 17:01
17:05

They think they're going to maybe come to like the picture they chose

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17:08

a little more than the one they left behind,

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17:11

but these are not statistically significant differences.

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17:14

It's a very small increase, and it doesn't much matter

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17:17

whether they were in the reversible or irreversible condition.

tedtalks 17:17
17:22

Wrong-o. Bad simulators. Because here's what's really happening.

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17:25

Both right before the swap and five days later,

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17:27

people who are stuck with that picture,

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17:28

who have no choice,

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17:33

who can never change their mind, like it a lot!

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17:36

And people who are deliberating -- "Should I return it?

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17:38

Have I gotten the right one? Maybe this isn't the good one?

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17:40

Maybe I left the good one?" -- have killed themselves.

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17:42

They don't like their picture, and in fact

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17:44

even after the opportunity to swap has expired,

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17:50

they still don't like their picture. Why?

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17:53

Because the reversible condition is not conducive

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17:55

to the synthesis of happiness.

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17:58

So here's the final piece of this experiment.

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18:02

We bring in a whole new group of naive Harvard students

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18:05

and we say, "You know, we're doing a photography course,

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18:07

and we can do it one of two ways.

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18:10

We could do it so that when you take the two pictures,

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18:12

you'd have four days to change your mind,

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18:14

or we're doing another course where you take the two pictures

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18:16

and you make up your mind right away

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18:18

and you can never change it. Which course would you like to be in?"

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18:23

Duh! 66 percent of the students, two-thirds,

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18:27

prefer to be in the course where they have the opportunity to change their mind.

tedtalks 18:27
18:31

Hello? 66 percent of the students choose to be in the course in which they will

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18:35

ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with the picture.

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18:41

Because they do not know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows.

tedtalks 18:41
18:46

The Bard said everything best, of course, and he's making my point here

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18:49

but he's making it hyperbolically:

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18:52

"'Tis nothing good or bad / But thinking makes it so."

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18:55

It's nice poetry, but that can't exactly be right.

tedtalks 18:55
18:58

Is there really nothing good or bad?

tedtalks 18:58
19:01

Is it really the case that gall bladder surgery and a trip to Paris

tedtalks 19:01
19:08

are just the same thing? That seems like a one-question IQ test.

tedtalks 19:08
19:10

They can't be exactly the same.

tedtalks 19:10
19:13

In more turgid prose, but closer to the truth,

tedtalks 19:13
19:16

was the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, and he said this.

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19:18

This is worth contemplating:

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19:22

"The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life

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19:25

seems to arise from overrating the difference

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19:28

between one permanent situation and another ...

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19:33

Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others,

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19:39

but none of them can deserve to be pursued

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19:43

with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules

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19:48

either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds,

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19:52

either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly,

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19:56

or by remorse for the horror of our own injustice."

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20:01

In other words: yes, some things are better than others.

tedtalks 20:01
20:06

We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another.

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20:10

But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast

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20:14

because we have overrated the difference between these futures,

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20:17

we are at risk.

tedtalks 20:17
20:20

When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully.

tedtalks 20:20
20:26

When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others,

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20:30

to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded,

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20:34

we're prudent; we're cautious; we're thoughtful.

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20:37

When our fears are unbounded and overblown,

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20:40

we're reckless, and we're cowardly.

tedtalks 20:40
20:43

The lesson I want to leave you with from these data

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20:48

is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown,

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20:54

because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity

tedtalks 20:54
20:58

we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

tedtalks 20:58
20:59

Thank you.