Ever thought about creating happiness? Not depending on the outside world to feel happy? Can you, setting everything material aside, count the things that give you happiness on your fingers?
In an inspiring TED talk on The Surprising Science of Happiness, Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, enlightens us on the benefits of manufacturing our own happiness and reducing our dependence on the outside world to achieve a happy state of mind. Emphasizing the difference between natural or ‘real’ happiness and synthetic happiness, Gilbert gives us interesting insights into the happiness level of people in different circumstances. A Harvard psychologist by profession, Gilbert is only one of the many researchers who have intensively focused on the meaning of happiness in our lives and how ideas of freedom and choice are intimately linked to it. His research was done with a diverse set of people including patients suffering from amnesia, lottery winners and paraplegics. The findings were even more curious, and led to actually questioning the very basis of our understanding happiness and how it is affected by our society. His studies on happiness hold valuable lessons that we can all benefit from learning…
Natural vs. Synthetic Happiness
According to Gilbert, natural or ‘real’ happiness is “what we get when we get what we wanted.” On the other hand, synthetic happiness is “what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.” The distinction is rather simple to understand if one considers the brain to be a manufacturer of feelings. As human beings, we can always make ourselves feel the way we want because our mental stimulator is faulty – it can easily be cheated. Natural happiness comes when you are able to buy the dream house you always wanted to and your mental stimulator helps you in feeling the happy experience. But say you are not able to buy that house? What does the mental stimulator do in such a case? It will naturally send signals indicating a lower level of happiness and satisfaction, but this is where the distinction becomes even clearer. When you cannot live in a bigger house and have to make do with what you have, a set of cognitive processes help us to remain satisfied with what we have. This is not because we are necessarily happy with our conditions in the real sense of the term, but because we have the ability to synthesize our happiness out of sheer lack of choice. Choices in this regard are considered to be the enemy of synthetic happiness.
How Can We “Fake” Happiness?
At this point, synthetic happiness may come across as rather “fake” to you. Some people have also gone to the extent of referring to it as a form of delusion wherein people are only deluding themselves into believing that they are happy. However, an interesting counterargument has been offered by citing the example of a nylon cloth. Nylon is a synthetic fabric, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Similarly, even if synthetic happiness is not something that comes to us naturally, that however does not mean that it is a delusion. It is a perfectly real feeling, no matter how it comes to us.
How can we synthesize our own happiness, then? It works both at a conscious and unconscious level, although the latter has a greater role to play. Gilbert cites things known as ‘impact biases’ to explain how our mental stimulator can be faulty. According to him, our stimulator has the tendency to make different scenarios seem dramatically different, even when they aren’t causing us to feel happy or sad about circumstances or things which might not be that important anyway. The relative impact of winning or losing a competition, buying or not buying a new house, passing or not passing an examination is much less intense and lasts for a shorter duration than we think it will.
Synthetic happiness works as a “psychological immune system”, a largely unconscious set of cognitive processes we start on our own, in order to feel happy when we don’t get what we want. The feeling of being stuck with something actually helps us generate a positive world view where we create our own happiness out of the situation we find ourselves in. Freedom of choice is bad for synthetic happiness because as humans we naturally will aim for something we think gives us true, real happiness. But when we don’t have the choice, when we cannot afford a bigger house, we learn to be happy with the one we have. A more humorous example is the difference between dating and marriage – when dating you have an ideal goal you want to achieve, in marriage you learn to be happy with what you’ve got.
Benefits of Synthetic Happiness
Synthetic happiness has many benefits. Experiments conducted by Gilbert among others show how the happiness levels of paraplegics and lottery winners are found to be at the same level over one year of study, despite their different life circumstances. Happiness does not depend on outside forces as much as we think it does, and even if we learn to live on synthetic happiness, it’s a perfectly real, healthy way to live. Synthetic happiness can help us lead a more content life where we embrace the situations we find ourselves in, rather than complaining incessantly about something we cannot change.
Similarly, experiments on happiness also show that we cannot predict our happiness. We may or may not achieve the state of happiness we think we will upon getting something we want.The natural happiness we get out of things is good, but it doesn’t always make us feel the way we want. Synthetic happiness, however, is determined by our will and can give us the feelings we are looking for. Synthetic happiness thus enables us to curb our worries and longings, to prevent feelings of hatred, jealousy and recklessness. We adopt positive behaviours associated with happiness despite our situation.
Is Synthetic Happiness for Everyone?
There is no conclusive evidence to prove that synthetic happiness cannot be used in every situation. Although synthetic happiness is all about learning to appreciate what you have when you do not have an alternative, and we can use this habit even when we do have the option of an alternative. The endless drive to achieve bigger things we think will be better because of our impact bias leads people to lie, cheat, hurt others and make sacrifices. It can lead to reckless behavior and self-harm; a perfect example is a gambler who loses all of their money while trying to win a million.
Even though synthetic happiness serves as a great emotional coping mechanism, passing up the opportunity to achieve natural happiness will hold you back in life. A complete ignorance or resistance to the outside world can lead to us becoming disconnected with our surroundings and the people around us. Synthetic happiness is not meant for those who want to work less or avoid their lives, it’s for those who want to be happy and spread happiness irrespective of what comes their way.