The Value of Synthetic Happiness

TED talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness” by Dan Gilbert, 2004 (>6 million views).

See also:
This blog: “The Art of Living Well,” 9/24/2008.
This blog: “David Foster Wallace ,” 8/12/2012.
This blog: “The Origin of Consciousness,” 2/11/2011
This blog: “Adapting.” April 20, 2010.

Which would you rather be, someone who has just won the lottery or someone who recently became a paraplegic? The lottery winner, of course, but studies of actual cases have shown that a year later, the happiness level is the same for both.

How can this be? Our brains have the amazing ability to absorb setbacks and synthesize happiness when logic says there should be none. Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, “I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.”

Gilbert. in his TED talk, tells us, “From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study — this almost floors me — a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.”

Gilbert defines two kinds of happiness: natural, occurring when our wishes are fulfilled, and synthetic when manufactured by our brains. Yet both are experienced as of the same quality, and in many ways, synthetic happiness is preferable as a goal.

We subconsciously change our views of the world, so that we can feel better about the world in which we find ourselves. Someone once asked the blind musician Ray Charles if his greatest wish was to get his sight back. “Naw,” he replied. “I’m used to it. It’s not like you closing your eyes and falling over a chair.”  If presented with a miracle cure, he would think twice before accepting it.

Almost any newspaper will give examples of people who have suffered devastating setbacks years earlier and now see it as all for the best. Long-term prisoners released after being exonerated by DNA evidence are often amazingly unresentful.

We think choice is an important part of our happiness. Like most of us, I am happy with my choice of spouse, happy with my career, happy with where I live. I cannot imagine any other life, yet studies show I would probably be just as happy if I had made other choices.

Freedom of choice is the basis of natural happiness, but synthetic happiness works best when we have no choice. Costco knows this. They purposely limit the choice of brands and sizes they sell, and the customers end up just as happy without the stress of choosing.

In a photography class at Harvard (back in the film days), students were told to select their two best photos of the semester. They could keep a valuable enlargement of one and the other would be irretrievably sent off to storage, but they would have 4 days to change their mind. The difference in desirability between the two photos was small and they often waffled back and forth for the 4 days, but their happiness with their choice jumped tremendously once the deadline had passed. This observation has been replicated over and over in similar tests.

“We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value.”  —Gilbert

The lesson Gilbert leaves us with is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing.

My take on it all is that at our stage of life we are subject to devastating changes: the loss of a spouse, or, worse, our children, grown, but still our children; being forced to leaving our familiar home for a distant retirement community.  But take heart—in a year you will be happy in your new situation.  Time really does heal all wounds, just like our mothers taught us.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in Aging, Popular culture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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