Like most everyone I know, my husband Thom and I are focused on staying as healthy as possible these days. Nearly everything you read or hear offers suggestions about what to do to avoid the virus and stay safe. However, I don’t believe there is nearly as much focus on what we can and possibly should be doing to stay sane and psychologically healthy. That’s why when I came across the words “psychological immune system” this week, it hit me that maintaining that immunity is equally as important as our physical health. So here’s what I learned about the term as well as a few ideas that we can all use to keep our mind and spirit strong and operating optimally as we go through this experience.
The phrase “Psychological Immune System” comes from author and Harvard College Professor Daniel Gilbert. In his bestselling book, Stumbling On Happiness Gilbert laid claim to the fact that most of us aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy—or what will make us miserable either. A big reason for that is because most of us base our future happiness or unhappiness on how we imagine we might feel at that time. Unfortunately, our imagination is usually stuck on what is available within our memory of the past, and how we are feeling in the current moment.
Why is that? According to Gilbert, most of us can’t imagine what we can’t imagine, so we “guesstimate” what we think will happen based upon our past biases, preferences and blind spots. So if we try to imagine something like being stuck at home for 60 days with no toilet paper, we have nothing solid to remember. That’s when we start making stuff up, and imagine what might happen and how we might feel. We do this ALL the time. As I’ve written about on more than one occasion, we are meaning-making creatures and regardless of the experience, our minds want to create a reasonable story (at least reasonable to us) that helps us understand any and all experiences we are going through.
Want me to say that another way? Gilbert writes, “The three-and-a-half-pound meat loaf between our ears is not a simple recording devise but a remarkably smart computer that gathers information, makes shrewd judgements and even shrewder guesses, and offers us its best interpretation of the way things are…(what) we do not realize (is) that we are seeing an interpretation.” And as I said, most of the time when we try to predict what is going to happen and how we will feel in the future, we forget that our brains are constantly “making up its interpretations” of what and how and why things will be what they will be. Sometimes things unfold the way we imagined beforehand…but sometimes it isn’t even close.
So where does our psychological immune system come into it? Like our physical immune system, Gilbert claims that our psychological immune system is a defensive system that allows our mind to defend against unhappiness, rejection, loss, misfortune and failure. He says, “When experiences make us feel sufficiently unhappy, the psychological immune system cooks facts and shifts blame in order to offer us a more positive view.” In other words, when the going gets tough our pre-frontal cortex kicks in with an explanation that makes us feel better about what’s happening.
However, this “system” doesn’t kick in every single time we feel unhappy. Gilbert believes it usually occurs when we are basically unaware of it happening and only when it fits within our usual preconceived perceptions. If we try to manipulate it or do it consciously, it can backfire. It also primarily kicks in during intense suffering—the difference between a bad and a very bad experience. Plus, the more stuck we feel without options, the more likely our brains will shift into rationalizing a story that explains the situation with a positive spin. Sort of like when a person says, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Okay, that’s the good news. It’s great to know that we all have the inherent ability to create a positive explanation for any extremely negative experience in our lives—including COVID-19. However, as with our physical immune systems, a healthy psychological immune system must “strike a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it.” For example, even if we feel positive about our health and the COVID-19 situation today, we still need to remain diligent so that we continue to practice safe procedures so we can stay that way.
So what it comes down to is, Gilbert believes we all have the capacity to “synthesize” happiness if or when necessary. This is in contrast to chasing after happiness (or wellbeing) as a goal or something to find. He says, “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want.” And while we all have this instinctive brain process available to us, it may come easier to some people (optimists vs. pessimists) rather than others. Also, some situations allow us to do it more effectively than other situations. Here are a few more insights that Gilbert provides.
- Recognize that as Gilbert says, “…negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.”
- Gilbert says, “The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped.” When we believe it’s impossible for us to change the situation, our minds get very creative by helping us become more appreciative of what is happening.
- Realize that it is far easier for us to remember the past, than to generate new possibilities for the future.
- Understand that, according to Gilbert, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.”
- We usually think that more choices and variety will make us happier but it seldom does (extensive research backs this up!)
- How something ends stays with us far longer and more vividly in our memory than how it started or what happened in between.
I’m guessing that those of us who think optimistically are already pretty good at imagining a positive future or synthesizing happiness when necessary. And I’ll admit that “psychological immune system” didn’t mean quite what I thought it might before my research. But who among us doesn’t appreciate knowing that something within our brains will compel us to create a good explanation for just about any difficult situation we might come across? It’s sort of like having a best friend, inside our own head, that will support us, comfort us and guide us toward a future that allows us to be at peace with any difficult circumstance. So, from where I stand, it is SMART to realize that I can rely on my psychological immune system and synthesize happiness if or when it might be necessary. Meanwhile, let’s all stay healthy and sane!