TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Finding—and creating—happiness


About Heidi 

Jay Phelan has been on the faculty of the UCLA Life Sciences Core Program since 1997, specializing in evolutionary biology, human behavior, and genetics. He received a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard in 1995, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Yale and UCLA. He is co-author of the international bestseller, Mean Genes (Basic Books), and the author of the textbook What is Life? A Guide to Biology (Macmillan), as well as dozens of technical publications in biology and science education.


When I was a kid once, I was riding around on my bicycle and I found $20, a twenty dollar bill. And this made me absolutely the happiest I had ever been in my life. My head was going to explode, it was so great. All the possibilities, the stuff I could get, the things I was gonna do.

And while I was being so incredibly happy, I had this odd thought though: that I had a bunch of friends, our family had a bunch of friends, and most of them were richer than we were. But when I thought about it, they didn’t seem any happier than we did.

And I thought well, that’s perplexing, right? It’s like, it’s like an Escher drawing that you know, you go up the stairs, you go up the stairs, and all of a sudden you’re back at the same place. And I thought how can this be? Is it true? And if it is true, why?

So I’ve been kind of obsessed with this for a while. So let’s do a fact check. Here’s some data that show between the years 1972 and 2002 the GDP per capita in the U.S. went up a lot every year such that it had doubled. Now over that time people had also looked at data from happiness, and what they found was that the average happiness rating stays exactly the same. What’s going on?

People have bigger houses. They have better cars. They have more stuff. And they’re not happier. This is perplexing. Between 1958 and today in Japan, there’s been a 300 percent increase in the annual income. Their ratings of happiness? No improvement.

Now is this just a Western creation, Western industrialized nation creation, that we cause people to desire stuff? No, it doesn’t work that way. And anthropologists have long known, they’ll go and they’ll visit societies far off the beaten track and a common description that they will say is when they are there, the people that they’re working with are dying to get at their axe handles, their T-shirts, their stuff. They imagine that it’s going to make them happier. Our cross-cultural desires to acquire stuff extend everywhere.

Now why is this? Why are we built this way? Biologists have known for more than 150 years that genes that cause individuals to reproduce and survive at a rate higher than other individuals, they increase their market share in the population. This causes organisms to be exquisitely adapted to their environment. But the weird thing is this process of evolution, it’s a relative game. You don’t win by scoring some fixed amount of points, by having some fixed amount of offspring. You win by outscoring your opponent.

But the net result of this is some crazy adaptation. You have insects that you can barely see because of the cryptic color. You have spectacular colored feathers because that’s what the females like. You have, in this case a fulmar chick, if a predator approaches them, projectile vomiting. Now think about that, they projectile vomit at you, you’re taken aback just long enough so they can get away. These are great adaptations.

Now what does happiness have to do with evolution and adaptations? Well think about these emotions. Things like desire, jealousy, anger, guilt. These are all emotions. But evolution can act on emotions just as it can act on physical structures or behaviors. These are brain states that alter our behavior in ways that are beneficial to our genes. In other words, they’re tools. Our genes are using tools to manipulate us towards their ends, and happiness is one of these as well. So we think that we’re just pursuing our own happiness. But what we’re really doing is we’re pursuing our genes’ agenda, and this has some unexpected consequences, some surprising implications.

Consider the lottery. Now you think if you win the lottery, then you’re gonna be happy forever, right? Well one thing you can count on if you do win the lottery is that there are researchers who are going to knock on your door — along with everyone else probably, after you’ve won — and they’re gonna ask, “How happy are you?” And not surprisingly, people rate on a scale of 1 to 7, they rate their happiness when they win the lottery at 7. It really does make you happy.

But they come back a year later and they ask them. This is so hard for my mind to wrap itself around. Their ratings of happiness are back down to pre-lottery winning levels within a year. What’s going on?

The flip side is true as well. People who have been in catastrophic accidents resulting in paralysis. After that, sure enough, their happiness bottoms out at 1 out of 7. But when researchers talk to them a year later, what they find is that people have recovered. They rebound in terms of their happiness and it comes back up to pre-accident levels. That’s odd, right?

So, all right. Well, I care about happiness though. I just want to be happiness. I want to be happy. What, what is some advice that I can get from this? Well, given that from these unexpected implications, that our genes love progress rather than absolute values, they like for us to be improving all the time, and also that our emotions are going to be built to feel more permanent than they actually are, some of the advice we can get comes along these lines.

First, making progress is going to be everything. In other words, moving towards goals rather than actually getting to their goals. I called my friend Terry up one night and I said, “Hey, how are you doing?” He said “Ah, I’m feeling kind of bad.” I said, “Well why?” I said, “What did you do today?” He said, “Well I bought pants.” I said, “Well what do you mean.” He said, “Well, I have my to do list.” We all love to-do lists. He said, “and I’ve been needing to buy pants. I hate to shop, but I did it.” I said, “All right. That’s good.” He said, “No, I need to write my dissertation.” True. All right. So I said, “What happened? He said, “Well I’ve got on my list: buy pants, I’ve got write dissertation, and so I bought the pants.”

Now you’re laughing, but how many of you out there are like me? You make a list some days and I’ll put things on the list like eat breakfast. (A) I love to eat breakfast and it’s easy. (B) I’ve already eaten breakfast! I get to check it off. Take shower. Done.

Why do we do that? It actually does make us happy. And so we’re checking it off because we’re making progress. Why? Because happiness is just a tool. Our genes are inducing us to have our current situation be better than it used to be.

There are lots of then things that can come from this that, if you structure your day so that you can make progress in ways that work out, that’s gonna be better off. For Terry, it consisted of getting rid of “write dissertation.” He had to put, you know, “write the first line of the first chapter.” When that was on the list, he did it. He said that made him happy.

Hemingway had a great quote. Someone asked him, “How much did you write every day?” And he said, “You should write and write, and then when you’re going really good and you know exactly what’s going to happen next, stop there.” He said, “That way the next day when you start, you know exactly what’s going to happen. And within seconds you’re making progress.” He said, “That always works out.”

There’s this great study I love. A researcher had a bunch of people, subjects, fill out these questionnaires about a whole bunch of different things including their happiness in their life. They then had to go make a photocopy of something, he sent them to an office nearby. He engineered it so that for half the people when they got to the other room there was already a dime sitting on the photocopier. The others had to fish through their pockets to find a dime to make the copy. Then they came back. He filled out this questionnaire and he had another question about, “On the whole, how do you feel with your whole life?” It turns out that the people who had found the dime on the copier had higher ratings of their lifetime happiness than the other people. For a dime!

Because of the way our emotions have been built, it’s less even about the absolute value of the change and it’s more about the change. That’s very important.

But what other advice do we get? We get the advice that you have to take your goals less seriously. Imagining that, if I could just get this then I’ll be happy forever. That’s just not true. We’re evolved so that we believe that’s true. That’s why our emotions are such good incentivizing tools. But what happens is that when you get there, the happiness goes away, like the lottery.

I have a friend, Peter, and when Peter was in graduate school he was worried all the time he’s like, “Ah, I’m never gonna get a job, it’s so hard in the academic job market to get a job. I’m never going to get one.” And then he got a job, and he was so happy. I saw him a couple weeks later and I thought, “Wow you just must feel so great that it’s all paid off!” And when I saw him he’s like, “No, it’s terrible.” He said, “Nobody gets tenure. In seven years I’m going to be evaluated and I’m not going to get tenure. You have to leave and then I’m unemployable. Nobody’s gonna want me.” He said, “This is disastrous.” So the years go by and Peter gets tenure and I say, I’m like, “Is this the greatest day of your life?” He’s like, “This is really good. I am happy. I think now I can be happy forever.” And within probably six months I saw him, I said, “Is it great? You having this lifetime job security?” And they had also made him department chair. He said, “Nah.” He said, “There’s no money anymore. All the people in the department, they have to get research funds. What are we going to do? It’s really bad.” And so he’d gone back down to his levels before. Eventually he even became the dean of the graduate school. Great position. He said, “It’s really a hard time in academia these days.” And for the most part he was a happy guy, but he had these peaks and he always came back down.

So if you are working towards some goal that you think, “Things are terrible right now, but when I get there then finally and forever I will be happy,” you’re gonna be disappointed because it’s not going to work that way.

You also need to take more chances. One of the consequences of having these emotions that are more short-lived than we imagine they’re going to be is that pain and humiliation, they don’t last nearly as long as we think they might. You want to ask somebody out on a date? You should do it. You want to indulge in some whim? You should do it. You want to try something that makes you afraid? You should do it. Because your perception of the worst-case scenario is wrong. In the end, it’s going to be okay.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn had a great perspective on this view of happiness, and he was writing once about his experiences. He was in a Siberian labor camp and he writes about threadbare clothing, this tiny bowl of soup for his meal, and doing hard labor in freezing cold temperature. But he’s been there for years. And he writes about it and he says, “It was a day without a cloud, almost a happy day.” Which seems really like the last place that you’d have a happy day, except that he had already baselined all the bad stuff. He expected them. And so, in terms of where was he now relative to where he was previously, where was he now relative to where he thought he was going to be, he is in a slightly better place. And so this perspective could really shift what we seek out and our understanding of what’s gonna make us happy.

An interesting thing too is that we can bring happiness to other people in a lot of ways that we might think that we can’t. So consider your gift-giving for instance. We give gifts to people on their birthday, we give gifts on holidays, but they expect them then. Obviously you still have to give them the gift, but they expect them. And so it’s hard to get, you know, a real hit of a gift. On the other hand, give someone a gift when they don’t expect it. The smallest gift can bring huge happiness. When I think about this, when I give someone a gift and they don’t expect it, they don’t see it coming, I feel like I’m the dime on top of the photocopier. It’s tiny, but somehow I’ve just created this happiness. It’s harder to surprise yourself, so you have to use this one on other people because we can do it.

Now think about this other situation. Maybe this has happened to you. You’re going to someone’s house for dinner or something like that, and you’re gonna be late. You look and you’re like, “We’d better call them.” So you call and you feel bad. You’re delivering bad news. How do you deliver the bad news? Most people are like, “Oh I feel bad. Well, tell them we’ll be there in five minutes.” You’re not gonna be there in five minutes. But you tell them that. And then the five minutes goes by and you’re not there and you may even have to call them again. “Sorry, traffic’s really bad,” you make up your story, whatever, and now you’ve given them a second piece of bad news, or even a third one. You call them up. You have to deliver the bad news. You’re already doing that. They’re gonna feel bad. Don’t do it over and over. It’s like the opposite of the dime and the photocopier. Deliver your bad news all at once. Then they’re done. Then it’s okay. “Yeah, it’s terrible, we’re gonna be probably a half-hour late.” Then when you arrive in 20 minutes they’re like, “Wow, you’re early!”

But it’s true. With your good news, you can just keep breaking that up into as many little parts as you want. I think about this all the time, y’know, I get a birthday gift for one of my kids, his birthday hasn’t come yet, but I can tell him: “Hey Charlie, I ordered a gift for you today.” He’s excited. I haven’t done anything. I’ll give him the gift later, but it’s still great. It still makes you happy.

So back to my initial paradox: finding twenty dollars makes me extremely happy, but having more money doesn’t make you happier than having less. How can that be? Well if we look at this perspective, that our emotions — particularly happiness — are just tools that our genes are using in order to get us to try to achieve their goals, to try to better our situation. And once they’ve done that, they’re done. So they have to shut down. That’s why they don’t keep you happy forever.

Once we realize this, then we can understand we have to structure our lives so that we are good at making progress as often, as continuously as possible, both for us and for all the people around us. Thank you.