Sad about Divorcing? It will Get Better in Time
[This post originally appeared on BV Source in July 2009.]
It’s natural to feel sad about divorcing. A marital separation or divorce can bring changes that cause stress or discomfort, at least for a while. Yet, recent research by a Harvard psychology professor has shown that the human brain contains a built-in capacity to recover happiness in a relatively short time. Prof. Daniel Gilbert is the author of the book “Stumbling on Happiness” (Random House 2007). Professor Gilbert has done extensive research of the frontal lobe cortex, the area of the human brain that generates our imagination. One thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to imagine experiences we haven’t actually had and judge whether those experiences might be good or bad. But our imagination is flawed. When we imagine what might happen to us, we usually misjudge how good or bad an experience might be. Here’s the hopeful part: when bad things happen to us, our frontal lobe cortex is programmed to “synthesize” happiness in a short period of time. Professor Gilbert found that survivors of catastrophic illnesses were just as happy as million-dollar lottery winners after the crisis period had passed. In fact, most people who have experienced bad events return to normal levels of happiness in an average of three months. More research from Prof. Gilbert: The “synthetic” happiness that our brains create when we recover from bad experiences is just as real and satisfying as the “natural” happiness we feel when good things happen. You might think that we are just fooling ourselves when our brains make lemonade from sour lemons, but Professor Gilbert’s studies show that synthetic happiness is just as good as “real” happiness. The moral of the story? We must keep hope alive as we are surviving a crisis period, like a marital separation or divorce. Our minds tend to exaggerate the good that we remember in the past and over-emphasize the bad when we imagine the future. Knowing that our minds will naturally return us to happiness, we can better survive the change.