So where do our emotions come from?
It’s not always cause and effect when it comes to our emotions. If you have plans to hang out with friends later tonight, you might be a little excited to do so. Your excitement comes from a direct result of what we think we will feel, and not the actual event itself. It’s partly why when you order a new iPhone and can’t wait to get it. Quite often you’re more excited in the anticipation up to the event, vs the event itself. Essentially I’m saying our emotions build on themselves, like a climax to a movie. The issue is that they often create a slanted perception of our thoughts and feelings.
In psychology, this kind of thinking is known as the agency-detection system, and it comes in every one of us. Another great example is say you’re walking home one night in a dark corridor. All of a sudden you hear the leaves move and your fight or flight response kicks in. Is it the wind, or could it be a ghost, or maybe even somebody trying to rob you? Depending on your existing pattern recognition abilities, your mind could likely choose the flight or flight response in most cases of the unknown. It’s better to err on the side of caution as your mind will always make its #1 priority to keep you alive.
Apart from the investigative side of our mind which analyzes current situations, we also tend to predict future events and how they will play out. The technical term for predicting our future emotions is known as Affective Forecasting. This is why you procrastinated on that essay you thought was going to take 2 days, and instead only took 2 hours. We analyze our future emotional state based on a time fallacy, because we can’t accurately predict the exact time, or effort we will need to put in to carry out our goal.
So this brings me to the problem itself, that we are horrible at predicting the future. We keep a strong bias to over, or underestimate the outcome of future events. Imagine if you bought a new car, or you received a parking ticket. Often our feelings are way different from how we think we will feel in such a situation. Psychologists call this the impact bias.
It’s been shown in multiple studies, that our happiness is generally not caused by the events that happen to us. We all have a sort of have a Happiness homeostasis, which brings us back to our previous state of mind no matter how bad things got. Sometimes our emotions can take months before they return back to their normal levels, but nonetheless they typically do (excluding any kind of chemical balance like depression of course).
This ability to return to a relatively stable level of happiness shortly after a major event is called the hedonic treadmill.
So what does subjective forecasting, and hedonic treadmill have to do with lemons?
Now that you understand the base concept, understand that both of these are part of a larger concept called the psychological immune system. If you feel hurt, upset or frustrated, you categorize this as a negative emotional state.
If a negative state occurs we typically experience various states of negativity such as denial, rejection, anger etc.. However in a relatively short period, after say your house burns down, or you lose your job, your mind will return to it’s previous mental state. You could compare it to a thermostat, as our temperaments tend to bring us back to a certain level of happiness based on our previous habits and mindset.
This brings me to the part called subjective optimization. It’s really a form of self-delusion and we all do it. In the unconscious part of our mind it tends to prefer the optimistic situation in the past, over the cold truth over the present situation. A good example of this might be of that cousin of yours. Remember how she got pregnant after getting accepted into college? Then she divorced the first guy and met an older guy named Steve who was a part of a biker gang.
Then they rode off into the sunset living happily ever after. She might think that is the best thing that ever happened to her. No matter how much you try to debate with her other scenarios, she may be set on it having been a good decision. Why do we do this though? We all have a tendency to look at the positive side of any bad situation, a tendency to … turn lemons into lemonade.
Now this isn’t all bad, after all it’s always better to look at the bright side of a shitty situation instead of being a cynical ass all the time. However, there are certainly times when it can be a disadvantage, and cause us more problems in the long-term.
The Photography study
This was demonstrated in a 1999 study by psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Jane Jenkins. They created a photography course at a college and asked students to take pictures of things they thought was meaningful to them and their experience there. Once the students had taken several photographs they were then asked to pick only 2 photos out of the 10 they took. The researchers then took the 2 negatives and converted them into a large portrait. They asked the students to come back in separate groups, and pick just 1 of the 2 photos. The first group was told to pick immediately, with no ability to change their mind later on.
The other group was able to pick immediately, but was allowed to change their mind for a few days after. It turned out that in a followup survey, the majority of students in the first group who couldn’t change their mind later, were actually happier with their decision. However the other group where they had time to change their decision felt more anxiety, and reported feeling less happy than the students who couldn’t change their decision. The interesting part is the initial survey the students filled out asked them which group they would prefer to be in. The majority of students chose the group which would allow them to change their decision.
Therefore the researchers concluded that you are more likely to make lemonade out of a situation for which is out of your control, and therefore unchangeable.
In fact the further you look back at history, the happier people were – subject to their environment. Today if we think of being a poor peasant in a medieval village, we would likely think of ourselves as being quite unhappy. However, each and every experience is completely subjective to our environment. Essentially, we rationalize our environment dependent on the situation being out of our control.
If there is nothing else we can do, our brain tells us to be happy about where we are, because it could always be worse.
Technology and the Internet today cause more unhappiness and psychological problems in our generation than any previous corporation, historical event, war, product, or person – in the history of civilization. We have wild unregulation of ourselves in an environment filled with distractions and things, within our control. This is partly why procrastination is so prevalent in our society today.
Imagine being somebody back in the 1940’s going to buy a car. Chances are you would simply be grateful to have a car, and would be more satisfied with that car than if you didn’t have it. Regardless of the problems you have with that car, the lack of choices internalized a greater amount of happiness in the people who bought it. Today you might be grateful to just have a car too, but deep down inside you really want a BMW.
The Fake Debriefing Study
Back in 2000, a number of psychologists were able to show that subjective optimization can be controlled through external, and often invisible forces. They hypothesized that they could control your happiness if they could control your fate, and thereby misdirecting blame to an external source.
While the study itself is quite complicated, I’ll try to rephrase the most important points here. Essentially, they took different groups of woman and asked them to choose a partner they have not seen. They read their biographies and see their potential partners answers on a personality survey. Little did they know that the other persons were all fake profiles drawn up by the researchers. They made one particular profile so bad that they nearly all selected it as the worst profile. In a separate group, before picking their partner they first watched a video where they attempted to count the number of vowels being flashed at them.
They were told that the random flashes of light in the video were just technical difficulties. Later they used a “fake debriefing” trick to tell them that the flashes of light were actually subliminal messages designed to influence their decision of their partner. Near the end of each experiment, each group had to choose randomly from a set of folders they were previously told they would be able to pick from. With each folder numbered by only a random letter, they didn’t know who they would end up with.
In both groups, all the participants – no matter which group, believed the partner they chose was the best possible outcome. The people who were told they were influenced by the subliminal messages reported feeling a greater belief in the power of subliminal messages, but yet surprisingly still felt like they chose the best partner.
Again, all the folders were of the same profile, so how did they consider the worst rated partner as being the best option for their situation? This is where each participant subjectively optimized their personal realities to believe it was a good outcome after all. Some actually felt like they had luck in choosing their partner.
Despite every participant in the study being responsible for their own level of happiness, they felt the decision was out of their control, and therefore created what psychologists refer to as the illusion of external agency.
So what does this all mean?
The studies do an important point in showing that we point to an external agency (or force) as the cause for the situation or place we are in. While, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we are born with this innate ability to see the best out of bad situations, sometimes we can take it too far. The externalization happens unconsciously, so it’s hard for us to even understand that this invisible force is acting on our thoughts and actions.
We do this all the time in life moments, and everyday scenarios where we believe things are going just fine when they in fact, they aren’t. We can’t see that the happiness or comfort we experience is coming from within, so we point a finger to a person, thing, or set of circumstances to blame. This allows us to offload negative feelings and move along with life.
The problem is that this is a delusion, and sometimes a costly mistake. In an effort to turn chaos into order, we look for something outside of ourselves to think of, and make things better than they really are. While we will likely always prefer a touched up version of reality through the eyes of a lens, it is of no benefit to think the outcome is always out of our control. So many things in life are impossible to do again, and many situations won’t ever change. The danger is in not asking ourselves if we are feeling happy because we think we did something, or that something else did it for us. If we don’t understand that sometimes the blame is on us, then we will never have the opportunity to learn and create a growth mindset.
You may argue with a friend, family, or historian for that matter, over the outcome of an event and how it could have been different. However they may see that event or thing as a good, positive occurrence that led to something better. It’s particularly hard for us to look back at something in history and say nothing good came out of it. If we didn’t have WW2, America might never have come out of the depression it was in, which could have prevented it from becoming the world’s global currency, which could have prevented it from having the internet we know of today.
While it’s not always a bad thing to look on the bright side of things, I advocate we should do so with caution. By doing this and analyzing other possible outcomes we might learn from our past to know if we are on a path fueled by our past actions, or future aspirations. By understanding subjective optimization and how it works, you’re better equipped to rationalize your path and just how fulfilling it may be.
So ask yourself, how many things in your life did you initially hate or enjoy the most, that you simply came to accept over time?
What if you could go back and do things differently? How much happier might you have been?
This post has not been revised since publication.