Black and white Daniel Gilbert headshot

Happiness Expert Takes On Climate Change

Acclaimed Harvard professor and CU Denver alum Daniel Gilbert, ’81, will give an April 3 Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture on how your brain reacts—or doesn't—to threats.

March 28, 2023

Our brains are complex, evolved, and befuddling things—with some serious limitations. Take, for example, our ability to respond to climate change, an enemy that Daniel Gilbert, PhD, said “is a beautifully crafted threat designed to go under our natural radar, to be invisible.” 

Gilbert will explore this topic on April 3 at CU Denver for the 2023 Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture. The acclaimed social psychology scholar has a New York Times best-selling book on happiness and has given dynamic TED talks seen by millions (his wisdom has even been featured on a Starbucks cup).  

The CU Denver alum’s ability to connect big ideas with daily life is a hallmark of Gilbert’s work. “In applying his scholarship in social psychology to how we perceive threats such as global warming and terrorism, Professor Daniel Gilbert exemplifies CU Denver’s focus on blending rigorous research with big ideas to tackle topics of major consequence,” Chancellor Michelle Marks said. “He has changed minds and captivated audiences around the world—and as an alum, he shows us how far you can go with a CU Denver education.” 

Gilbert first arrived on the Auraria campus as a high school dropout seeking a course to support his science fiction writing. None were open, but a psychology course was. Thus began a scholarly journey that led to an undergraduate degree from CU Denver, a PhD from Princeton University, and his current position as the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In advance of his talk on campus, we talked with Gilbert about his time at CU Denver, climate change, and happiness. 

Why aren’t our brains better equipped to address climate change?  

Because this is not the world we were adapted for. We’re stunningly good survivors and reproducers. We’re beautifully adapted for finding mates, and making friends, and figuring out who we like and don’t like, who we trust and shouldn’t. But in trying to decide what’s the largest threat to human civilization, we’re not built to think about this stuff.  

So, can we learn to react to threats our brain might naturally ignore? 

You can teach people to care about things they don’t naturally care about. But we also should take into account that most human beings are going to react to threats that are intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous. And we can tailor our messages about climate change so they provoke more of a natural response.  

You’re well known for your work on happiness. Are there connections between happiness and climate change? 

I can imagine that from the point of view of a listener, these seem like night and day topics. To me, they’re exactly the same thing. I could give a talk about happiness. It too would be a talk about how the human brain fails to comprehend the current reality. That’s the unifying interest for me: The foibles of the human mind. The ways in which when we look out, we either don’t see what’s really there, or we see what isn’t.  

What do you hope your talk will provoke? 

It seems like a moment in time when it’s appropriate for all of us to say: Given what psychologists know about the mind, how might we capitalize on that knowledge to do something really important for the world? Rather than coming to hear about how I might be a little happier in my personal life, I’m hoping to send people away feeling a little less happy about the world, but a little more compelled to do something about that. 

And history suggests happiness is not always the way forward. 

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln: These were very unhappy people. And guess what? As a result of that unhappiness, they changed the world.  

What do you remember most from your CU Denver days?  

There were three psychology professors—Gary Stern, Carolyn Simmons, and Jan Driscoll—who seemed to take special interest in me. Maybe I asked more questions than usual. Maybe I came later to pester them about things. But I was just so interested in the material, so they spent a lot of time with me. It was this place that was so inviting. Doors were opening, and people were saying, “Come, come, come… walk through!”   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.