Can You Reverse Engineer Happiness? (#971)

“Reverse engineering” is a term used to describe the process of taking something apart to see how it works in order to either copy or improve upon it. While traditionally used in the context of manufacturing or computing, there are a growing number of psychological disciplines which attempt to improve certain traits, attitudes, and cognitive abilities by studying people who are already successful in an attempt to “reverse engineer” these traits and make them more accessible to all of us.

One of the more successful of these attempts has been the work of Dr. Richard Bandler, commonly known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP. One of the first breakthroughs Dr. Bandler made came about by studying people who had spontaneously overcome phobias. After a series of more than 50 interviews, he discovered that there was a specific and predictable shift that had happened in the way that each of these people now thought about what had previous evoked such a strong fear  response. By deliberately provoking that shift, known as a visual/kinesthetic dissociation, Dr. Bandler and his students (myself at one point among them) are able to consistently eliminate or greatly reduce phobic responses in their clients or patients.

So the question for me isn’t whether or not reverse engineering “works” in psychology – the question is how far can you usefully take it as an approach?

For example, there are an increasing number of techniques appearing under the blanket umbrella of “Positive Psychology” that claim to show that we can learn to be happy by copying the behaviors of happy people. For example, happy people are often grateful for much of what happens in their lives. So, according to the reverse engineering theory,  if we write gratitude lists and cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”, we too will be happier.  While there is plenty of evidence of the efficacy of gratitude lists in helping people overcome depression, can it take us all the way to happiness?

Studying happy people seems like such a step forward over studying people suffering from psychological illness that it could seem petty to question how effective the techniques it has produced actually are. However, in my experience, practicing these reverse-engineered “techniques for happiness” bears a striking resemblance to what the physicist Richard Feynman called “cargo-cult science”.

In a lecture to the graduating class at Cal Tech, Feynman said:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land.They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

In my own early work, I developed a number of these techniques which I shared under the somewhat tongue in cheek name of “behavioral Prozac”, because it seemed to me that when practiced consistently they helped stave off depression and the extremes of overwhelmingly negative emotion in myself and my clients.

But therein lay the problem. When we most needed the techniques was when we were least inclined to use them, so we then needed additional techniques to motivate us to practice when we really didn’t want to. If those techniques didn’t work, I would go out and find or invent new ones.

Which in retrospect is kind of like the witch doctor in the “cargo cult” prescribing coconut shells instead of wooden pieces as headphones when the planes continue not to land. Within the misunderstanding of where cargo comes from, it seems like a reasonable adjustment to make, but when you know where cargo really comes from, it’s obviously (and somewhat charmingly) missing the point.

Sitting in a hut by a dirt runway is unlikely to bring an airplane filled with cargo to your tiny island unless you get extremely lucky; copying the behaviors spontaneously produced by happy people will rarely make you happy, though it certainly can cheer you up in the moment and get your mind off how miserable you’ve been.

So what’s the solution?

In my experience, the more people look towards their own moments of spontaneous happiness and well-being, the more of those moments seem to occur. And when they look beyond what they happened to be thinking or doing at the time to see where that happiness and well-being come from, they inevitably notice that it seems to come from nowhere, arriving spontaneously out of the blue like the sun breaking through the clouds on an otherwise grey and blustery day.

We don’t seem to need to do anything in particular to be happy – just look for where happiness comes from inside ourselves and let it shine through the clouds of our thinking more and more of the time.

Play with this for yourself – I’ll be interested to hear what you discover on the Inside-Out Community Facebook group!

With all my love,

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