Back in the 1970s, Dan Gilbert (BA, ’81) came to CU Denver to study creative writing. Finding the class he wanted to take full, he asked the registrar what he could take in its place. As luck would have it, Introduction to Psychology fit his schedule.
Thus began his unplanned foray into psychology, igniting a career that would include a book on The New York Times best-seller list, TED talks with over 15 million views and a professorship at Harvard University.
Gilbert, also known for his starring role in Prudential television commercials, returned to CU Denver to deliver a talk titled, “Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You.”
As his own early-career experience illustrates, people can’t always predict the future.
“The fact is if people were happy when they got what they wanted, people would be happy all the time – but they’re not,” he said.
Gilbert displayed an artist’s illustration of the year 2000 from the 1950s. There were layers of inaccuracies in the photo. Despite the advanced technology and fashion, the actors’ activities were exactly what they would have been in the 1950s.
“Every one of us is a prisoner of the present, and it’s very hard to imagine a future that’s vastly different from today,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert presented survey data indicating that our ability to predict who we’ll be and what we’ll want in the long-term is about as accurate as our ability to predict how people will behave 50 years from now, which is to say, not terribly accurate.
There is a silver lining to this deficit.
Stop chasing joy; it will come
While we expect material possessions and life events will bring us great and lasting happiness, they often fall short, Gilbert said. Conversely, negative life events, such as serious illness or injury, don’t impact our happiness nearly as significantly as we’d expect.
“Seventy-five percent of people who experience a major life catastrophe are doing well two years later,” Gilbert said. “The bottom line is that humans are not the tiny, delicate fields of flowers we imagine ourselves to be … the mind is more resilient than it knows.”
Gilbert’s talk challenged common ideas of finding that elusive happiness. It’s not something we achieve by strictly adhering to conventional wisdom, he said.
“In every human language, the word ‘happiness’ comes from the word for luck,” he said.
People might find themselves happier by letting go of what they predict will bring happiness and by accepting hardships and challenges with the understanding that our brains are resilient, and our futures are likely not as grim as they appear, he said.
Guest contributor: Emily Lefferts, Advancement Assistant