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.

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