According to Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who has been studying decision-making for over a decade, the surest way to maximize happiness has nothing to do with experiences, material goods, or personal philosophy.
It’s all about who you decide to spend time with. But “it’s not just advice to choose your friends carefully,” Cerf told Business Insider.
There are two premises that lead Cerf to believe personal company is the most important factor for long-term satisfaction.
The first is that decision-making is tiring. A great deal of research has found that humans have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Picking our clothes, where to eat, what to eat when we get there, what music to listen to, whether it should actually be a podcast, and what to do in our free time all demand our brains to exert that energy on a daily basis.
(Cerf has actually made it a personal policy to always pick the second menu item on the list of specials when he’s out to eat, for just that reason.)
The second premise is that humans falsely believe they are in full control of their happiness by making those choices. So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we’ll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.
Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good, and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they’d otherwise avoid.
But as Cerf tells his students, that last factor can be harnessed for good.
His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other’s company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical. One study of moviegoers, for instance, found the most engaging trailers all produced similar patterns in people’s brains.