Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Synthesizing Blockage

You may not have time for a TED talk right at the moment, but this one is worth it. So when you get home tonight, come back to this post and click on the link above. Sit down, maybe with a cup of deliciously bitter Chinese herb/mushroom tea (ok, I'm speaking for myself here), kick back and take it all in. It's glorious. Dan Gilbert pushes the limits of what we thought about happiness by explaining how we manufacture happiness in our brain cells, even when we think there is no happiness to be found. I viewed this talk 4 years ago and have come back to it many times since, because I find it so compelling.

The Cole's Notes: Dan Gilbert, a flamboyant Harvard social psychologist, describes how we're each built with a psychological immune system. What does that mean? He argues what the Buddhists have known for millennia, that the external conditions of our lives are not what creates happiness in humans. Well, not long term happiness anyway. He says we overestimate the importance of external events in their ability to make us happy, when in fact they don't matter that much. We can create happiness out of shitty circumstances no problem, Gilbert says. Watch the talk to see how he demonstrates this through a series of interesting experiments. He also peppers his talk with astounding anecdotal accounts.

The Kicker: In one of the experiments he discusses towards the end of his talk, Gilbert describes how two groups of students were compared on their ability to synthesize happiness. In both groups,  students took a photography course. After taking a number of pictures on campus, they were taught how to develop the pictures and were allowed to develop 2 large size pictures. Both groups of students were told that they would be allowed to pick one and relinquish the other as proof of participation. Students in one group (reversible group) were told that if they changed their minds over the next 4 days and wanted to switch pictures, that would be totally cool. Students in the other group (non-reversible group) were told that their decision was final. When contacted 3 days and 6 days later, those in the non-reversible group, those whose decision was final, liked their pictures a lot. Those who were still deliberating about exchanging their pictures (reversible group), really weren't happy with their picture.  Gilbert concludes that those in the reversible group were not able to properly synthesize happiness because they were left ruminating about changing their picture.

The IF-Link: I've been reading IF blogs for a while now and I'm always trying to draw patterns in the data I find there. Mea culpa: I can't help it, really. It's not that I see your blogs as data. It's more that I think about your blogs and your lives as those of individuals 80% of the time, and I think about broad trends in the data about 20% of the time. That's just my over-intellectualized defense, trying to make sense out of a world of chaos. Anyway, you can hate me now, but let me make my point. I was reading Jess' blog post today about how something in her just snapped and she no longer wants to be stuck on feeling miserable because she doesn't have a baby. It got me thinking about how much we put on this external event and how much we expect it to bring us happiness. Don't get me wrong: I'm 100% certain that having children will make us all happy. The part that I'm thinking about right now is the unhappiness in the meantime, as Jess so aptly describes.

I feel like the "unhappiness in the meantime" has largely to blame the sense of reversibility many experience in the way treatments are structured. The choice is always all on patients; there are always more complex (and expensive) treatments to solve the problem of infertility; it is rarely final unless: a) the woman achieves pregnancy or b) the couple gets off the ART ride. I mean, is there anyone reading this who have been told by their RE that there was nothing more they could do for you? I'm not bitching about having options here, I'm just making a point that all this choice of further treatments is actually, in Dan Gilbert's words, stopping us from synthesizing happiness. If treatments had finality somehow, we would be able to move on. Psychologically, this would be at our advantage. Yet, since many have gotten pregnant only after several grueling years of fertility treatments and quitting sooner would have obviated that success, it would also represent a disadvantage.

I am not suggesting that we quit trying and I am not putting down any of us for our persistence. I just want to highlight what I think makes women and couples miserable in this process (aside from the obvious lack of infant in their arms). If Infertility was like amputation, we would move on with the business of living our lives without our right arm. But IF is the land of question marks, of reversibility, of maybe one more time or with a different RE. It never lets the dust inside us settle, but instead keeps us actively focused on external outcomes for a chance at happiness.

May we all take utter delight in a small joy today and remember that it's in us to feel, this happiness I speak of. May we all get our babies home, and may we remember to find joy in the meantime.  


  1. For everything I think I want, I am blessed with the abundance of what I need. I love being part of the broad trend.

    This is an encouraging and insightful post. I know that when we heard from our doc that IVF was a no go, our happiness increased as the anxiety to get that baby with everything availabe to us was making us panic.

    The tea is poured and the link will be clicked. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I haven't watched the talk, but Gilbert gave a colloquium when I was a grad student (I remember rushing home and telling Mr. Bunny about the study with the photographs), so I'll do my commenting now. I certainly agree with the basic point that the uncertainty and lack of a definite endpoint is a major source of suffering. I also think until I've been in the shoes of a woman who made the decision to move on without the ultimate prize, I can't say how much happiness rebounds. The general story you hear in IF world is that ending treatments is hard, but people can still be happy once they've grieved. I don't know what that brand of happiness is like. I also recall reading papers about the "set point" of life satisfaction--some events do appear to alter that for a person, making your baseline happiness lower than before.

    In general, you seem like someone with a TON of serenity and grace, and someone who strives for kindness and light, while I'm a bitter whining pessimist. But I'm actually okay with that--I think the world needs both of us.

  3. Augusta- Thanks so much for this post. I haven't listened to the talk yet, but it sounds great. EXACTLY where I am right now. Plus I love research- so that is pretty awesome.

    Also- I wasn't really talking about my regular bloggers with the platitudes. I think it's harder to take from people who have no idea what the hell i am going through- particularly in real life.

    We all do platitudes from time to time though. It's part of not knowing what to say when someone else goes through the suck.

    thanks for taking such heavy consideration to my last post!

    Also, your photos are on the way soon. My break from reality has delayed things!

  4. In the last few months of watching people and reading what they have to say, I'm amazed at what lengths people are willing to go to get pregnant. Not to get a baby, but just to get pregnant. I'm sure being pregnant would be wonderful and I hope that some day I can carry a child to term June, I'm getting off this train and looking at adoption again. I'm not knocking other people's decision at all. Some people don't have adoption options and to some, being pregnant is one of the most important roles of a woman. I admire them for their courage to keep trying.

  5. I've often thought about how, in some ways, a couple who is told they will never be able to have children, no matter what, probably has an easier time dealing with it in the long-run than couples who spend years on the infertility treatment treadmill. Finality has major advantages.

    I would say, though, that it's a little dangerous to say that having children will make all of us happy. I don't believe that any external circumstances--like spouses, children, jobs, etc--can MAKE us happy or unhappy. When we put the pressure on our spouses or children to make us happy, we get into all kinds of trouble. But, I definitely agree that children do bring much happiness and joy into our lives--they just aren't the determining factor.

  6. Wow. You've hit a nerve here with me (in a good way, I promise)

    I've been saying for years that if some RE would just tell me to give up, I would be able to move on without regret. It is the what if that is literally tearing me to pieces. I hate that we can't get a clear cut reason of WHY we can't get a pregnancy to stick. I feel that if I could just find some clear cut reason then I could walk away.

    You've given me some food for thought. I'm struggling to find some sense of happiness and reading this post really made me realize how much energy I have put towards this one external event in the hopes it will give me that overwhelming sense of happiness.

    Haven't watched the talk, but plan to do that as soon as I can.

    Thank you...

  7. I read this yesterday but am only getting a chance to comment now. I've been thinking about it since then. Happiness IS so dependent on ourselves, our mindframe, our approach to things.

    I also think there's a lot to the fact that this struggle does not have an end point that we can see. I'm glad it doesn't, honestly, for now. But at the same time, it does keep us in the same place for an awfully long time.

  8. Very interesting post. I don't know how I missed it the last time I came by your blog, but I'm glad I didn't miss it this time. Yes, I think sometimes we have way too many options (in the photography example) and are left feeling empty that maybe if we had chosen something different things would've turned out better. Just choosing cereal or pancake syrup at the grocery store can get ridiculous. how many brands does one food need? sorry, off on a tangent.

    but there is no doubt about it, dealing with infertility and its treatments can cause a great deal of unhappiness. which if we don't fight against it can overwhelm us and cause us to lose focus on what can really make us happy--us and our desire to find happiness.

  9. You're right, I don't have time for a TED talk right now...but I'll definitely be bookmarking this one.

    I think you hit the nail on the head here, that part of what is so horrible about this whole scene is that it never. ends.

    The only way to get off is by deciding to get off--I'd even argue that a pregnancy isn't the magical ticket to happiness after IF, because my carefully compiled anecdata show beloved bloggers spending their pregnancies in states of terror, and then it's not as though family building gets any easier after one child.

  10. VERY interesting post. I think this is also why we decided to "give up" (not actively TTC nor trying to get tested to find out if there are something wrong with us). I just "want to get it over with" so to speak, though it's never really over until perhaps I have menopause he he...