Dan Gilbert’s talk (listen to it if you have 21 minutes to fill) was about the brain’s role in human happiness. He argued very convincingly that happiness is more a construct of the brain than a natural result of circumstances, and that our "experience simulators" are very often wrong as to what things we think will bring us happiness. For example, one would think that winning the lottery would make one happier than becoming a paraplegic, but research shows that one year after these events, paraplegics and lottery winners are equally as happy (really!). We think happiness has to do with getting what we want, but according to the research, it has very little to do with it. In fact, those that get what they want are often less happy than those who don’t, or those who don’t have a choice about what they get.
Listen to the talk for more great examples from the research, but it made me think about Jesus saying to people: "
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it". If we’re honest, we probably think that’s crazy-talk, but here comes prodigal son science, telling us the same thing: getting what we want actually isn’t all that important, and doesn’t make us all that happy. In fact, we might find if we gave up our quest to get what we want, we might be much happier. If we lose our lives, maybe we’d find them.
The other talk, by Barry Schwartz (listen to it if you have 13 minutes to fill), deals with the fact he’s discovered that the explosion of choice we’ve seen in affluent Western society (175 salad dressing options in most grocery stores, for example) is actually leading to less happiness. He actually attributes much of the modern rise in depression to the smorgasbord of options available to everyone now (well, available to affluent people in Western societies).
He actually argues that a redistribution of wealth would benefit everyone because of this "too many options makes me less satisfied" phenomenon. Those without the means to choose things (the billion people who live on less than $1 a day, for example) would greatly benefit from having more resource with which to choose. They could choose clean water instead of cholera-infested water, for example. And actually, because we have way too many options, giving a few of our options to those who don’t have any would benefit us as well! I really like his reasoning.
We think that if having some choice is good, then having more choice is even better. But apparently it doesn’t work that way. If we realized this, I think redistribution of wealth wouldn’t feel like such a hard pill to swallow. Of course, there are groups that have been advocating simplicity for a long time (the Quakers, for example). But again, here we have science confirming it (the prodigal son comes home?).