Be happy with what you have and are, be generous with both, and you won’t have to hunt for happiness.
~ William E. Gladstone, British Prime Minister, 1892 – 1894
What is real happiness? Is happiness that we make up true happiness?
According to social psychologist, Dan Gilbert, there are 2 kinds of happiness. One is natural happiness which we experience when we get what we want and the other is synthetic happiness which we manufacture when we don’t get what we want.
Here’s a question for you: Is one better than the other?
Let’s find out.
In denial or truly happy?
I am sure you have heard about people who after experiencing a bad event or a disappointing setback tells others and themselves that they are better off despite not getting what they want and that they wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.
Well, it turns out that these people aren’t overt-optimists who are in denial about their misfortune. It turns out that their “synthetic” happiness did make them happy. For real.
In his Ted Talk, social psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about people fabricating happiness after not getting what they want or experiencing a real nasty experience such as being wrongly convicted and served decades worth of a jail sentence for something he has not done.
The sentiment expressed by the man who was wrongly convicted was that it was a “glorious experience”. Really? Surely that is not the right feelings to have after serving time for so long for something you did not do?
Naturally, we think that these people must be lying to themselves, they can’t be truly happy with their experience but we could be wrong….
Using unconscious memory to test happiness
Well, in an experiment Gilbert conducted on patients with anterograde amnesia who cannot form new memories he first asked the patients to rate a lineup of 6 Monet prints from 1 being the least-liked to 6 being the most-liked. Then, he told them that as a gift they would be given either print number 3 or 4 as a gift and most of them picked number 3 over 4 just because of preference. The researchers then left the room and returned (bear in mind that the patients do not remember the research team nor what transpired before) and the patients was asked again to rank the 6 paintings from least-liked to most-liked.
Here’s the interesting bit:
The individuals now rank the number 3 painting at number 2, higher than before and the number 4 painting which was rejected was now ranked even lower than before at number 5. The results indicated that they are happier with the painting they had owned more than before and they liked the rejected painting even less even though they do not have any conscious memory of the paintings.
With this experiment, Gilbert found that individuals make their own synthetic happiness unconsciously. Gilbert also found that this unconscious ability to synthesize happiness happens more often in situations where we do not have control over the situation.
In essence, we are really good at making ourselves feel better about an outcome that occurs from a situation that is out of our hands.
Now, what does this mean for you and why should you pay any attention?
Here are 3 reasons why you should pay attention:
1. Synthetic happiness is not fake. It is not something you make up when you are pissed off about not getting what you want. Synthetic happiness is a natural mechanism we all have in our brains that lets us see a not-so-ideal situation in a different light and learn to like our situation which in turns does let us become happier in time to come.
2. The ability to synthesize happiness is a vital skill to have because we cannot have everything we want all of the time. The truth is we will all face disappointment at some points in our life and we need to be able to manufacture happiness and become adept at seeing the better side of life.
Here’s a point to ponder: clinically-depressed individuals do not have the ability to synthesize happiness in most situations of their lives and that is why they find it harder to see the greener side of life.
3. We often grossly overestimate or underestimate how naturally happy we will feel in any situation. Truth is we will only truly know how happy we will feel and continue to feel when we are actually experiencing thus being able to synthesize happiness helps us cope with the uncertainty of our future outcome.
The joyful state that we feel is made up of both synthetic and natural happiness. Neither is better than the other because to lead a balanced life we need both: Natural happiness lets us experience the good stuff and synthetic happiness lets us adapt and appreciate what we do have when the outcome is less than ideal. When you start exercising the ability to synthesize happiness, you may find that some situations are not as terrible as they appear at first.
Can you think of a time when you synthesized happiness? What event caused you to synthesize happiness at the time and did the feeling of happiness continued? Share your comments below.
Su is the founder of Life Provocateur and she is passionate about helping people take the first steps to taking charge of their lives and help them find passion, purpose and meaning in their lives. Liked the article? Sign up and receive free updates whenever new articles are posted.