The Secret of Happiness?

I recently saw a TED Talk by Harvard Professor of Psychology David Gilbert. What he says is extremely interesting. According to Gilbert, there are two kinds of happiness: ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’.

“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted; and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

Let’s take a simple example as an illustration. Bill is an average guy who is up for promotion. He wants this promotion; he believes that the extra money and job security will make him happy. There are two possible outcomes: he will either get the promotion or he won’t; he will either get what he wanted, or he won’t. If Bill gets the promotion, he’ll get what Gilbert calls ‘natural happiness’: he’ll be happy because he got what he believed would make him happy. If Bill doesn’t get the promotion, he might still find ways to be happy with the situation. As people often do when they miss out on something, he might say and think things like, “It was for the best, this way I get to spend more time with my family,” or “Well, it was just money anyway.” This is what Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness’, because in a sense, Bill has had to synthesise or manufacture it. He’s had to make himself happy in spite of his circumstances.

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?

As Gilbert points out, “In our society, we have strong belief that synthetic happiness is an inferior kind.” We tend to think that people who make themselves happy despite not getting what they wanted are really just masking their dissatisfaction or being disingenuous. But Gilbert’s big argument is that “… synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.” In other words, happiness is something that we make, not something that we find. It’s an act of our own will, and not a circumstance which comes to us from without.

In his talk, Gilbert points to several interesting experiments which show that people can be powerfully happy even in terribly reduced circumstances. These findings are quite surprising; they’re not intuitive at all. For example, we would assume that typically, lottery winners are much happier than paraplegics. But an experiment cited by Gilbert showed that three months after winning the lottery or being confined to a wheelchair, paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. What happens to them has no lasting effect on the state of their happiness. What does affect their happiness is their own choice of how to deal with what has happened to them; happiness is a way of life, not a circumstance.

Early Christians didn’t have the time or the academic technology to do empirical studies about what makes people happy. And yet, from its earliest days and most foundational texts, through the patristic period, Christianity has always taught that true happiness is found within one’s spirit, rather than in their external circumstances. In the New Testament, the great promise of Christ is a source of happiness and nourishment which is more stable and more reliable than material goods. “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” Jesus says (Jn 6:27; also see Mt 6:19,20, Mt 6:33, 1 Jn 2:15-17). Jesus and the authors of the New Testament constantly speak of a source of happiness which persists through any and all material circumstances. What is this magical substance which, unlike material pleasures, can satisfy us regardless of our condition?

For Christians, the answer is ‘communion with God’; theologically speaking, the Holy Spirit deifies believers and makes them proper Images of God, allowing them to rise above the chaotic and unpredictable world, and draw their sustenance from the infinitely reliable fountain of God’s love. St. John Chrysostom said, “Affairs are full of much change. We are not masters of our end. Let us be masters of virtue.” What does he mean by ‘virtue’? For Chrysostom, every created thing has a ‘virtue’, a purpose for which it was created. For example, a horse’s virtue is “to be swift and strong in its legs”; all the other things a horse might have (ornaments, braiding, richly studded bridles) are only adornments, and if the horse were to lose these things, it would not be right to say that the horse had been ‘harmed’. A horse is only harmed if it is damaged in a way that damages its virtue: its ability to move quickly.

Chrysostom’s big argument is that the virtue of a man is such that no external circumstances could ever damage it. The virtue of a man, he contends, is in “right actions of the soul”, and the only thing that can prevent a human soul from fulfilling its virtue is that soul itself. Hence Chrysostom insists that “when a man does not injure himself, he cannot possibly be hurt by another.” If a man is loving, compassionate and true in his own soul, then “not all the creatures who inhabit the whole earth and sea if they combined to attack him would be able to hurt [him].” Human beings were made as Images of God, and God is eternal, needless, loving and endlessly joyous. Chrysostom’s argument is precisely the same as Gilbert’s conclusion: happiness (which Chistians call ‘virtue’ or ‘the image of God’) is an internal state of being rather than a set of external circumstances.

This isn’t, of course, an argument that only Christians can be happy; it’s simply an argument that the ancient Christians got it right when they picked out the psychological conditions necessary for happiness. That said, there’s still a genuine question about why happiness should be so independent of external circumstances. In a world where death is the end of all things, why is it that a paraplegic can be just as happy as a lottery winner? How is it that the desperately poor, living in squalor and disease, are capable of stable, genuine happiness which seems to rival that of most CEO’s and celebrities? How can this woman, given her shockingly unfair circumstances, say the things that she does?

Only the most closeted of fanatics could possibly deny the presence of genuine joy among the hopelessly sick and needy. The real question is whether or not that joy has any actual basis; whether or not it is a mere illusion. For me at least, if death really is the pitiless sink into which all good things irrevocably flow, those who are most powerless to resist it should be the saddest and most desperately unhappy of all. Their ‘choice’ to be happy should be thought of as nothing more than a delusion – a convenient psychological fiction designed to make a horrible life bearable. The Christian claim though, is that despite their terrible and unjust circumstances, the poor and dejected have genuine cause for happiness. Not because their circumstances are good or their suffering deserved – on the contrary, oppressing the weak is a scandal and an offence to God! – but rather because true goodness is the sort of thing which no evil force could ever destroy. On this view, their choice to be happy is not just a delusory coping mechanism, but a witness to the unconquerable nature of innocence: a victorious and breathtaking statement that even though evil has cast all its fiery darts at them, it has failed to damage them even a little. That is cause not only for happiness, but for defiant and unending joy.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Rom 8:35-37)


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