Yesterday I watched a Ted talk by Daniel Gilbert, titled The Surprising Science of Happiness. It’s only about 20 minutes long so I recommend you watch it. If you don’t have time though, I will try to summarise it for you:
About 2 million years ago, human brains got about three times bigger, when we developed the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex could be considered an “experience simulator”, and the amazing thing that this allowed us to do was imagine outcomes before they happen, so we could weigh up options and make decisions. However, we also have something called impact bias, where we overestimate the impact an event will have on us, for example a break up, or getting a promotion. In actuality, three months on from the event, the impact will, in most cases, have become negligible.
Studies have compared the happiness of people who have won the lottery against those who have become paraplegic, and found that one year on, they are both as happy as each other. This is due to a cognitive process that we have which allows us to change our views of the world, so that we can feel better about the situations we find ourselves in.
However, this only applies when a situation is beyond our control. When a situation has been thrust upon us that we cannot change, or we make a decision that cannot be gone back on, we find a way to be happy about it. When we feel like we have control of the situation, or can change the decision, we tend to believe that what we don’t have will be better than what we do have (due to impact bias of our experience simulator), and we go after that other, “better” option. This is obviously a factor in infidelity and divorce and the ruthless pursuit of wealth beyond what we need to survive and be comfortable.
Experiments have shown that people who are stuck with their decision, or believe it cannot be changed, are more likely to become happy with it. The people who have the option to change their mind end up unhappy with the decision, even after the window to change it has passed.
The happiness that arises from getting what we want is called “natural happiness”, and the happiness that we make when we don’t get what we want is called “synthetic happiness”. There is a belief that synthetic happiness is inferior to natural happiness, possibly because that is what we have been conditioned to believe in our society, as our economy relies on us wanting things. However, synthetic happiness feels just as real and good as natural happiness.
This is a very rough summary that I probably didn’t do justice to, so I do recommend watching it yourself.
The key point that I took away from this talk, was that happiness is not a result of our circumstances, but a way we can choose to feel, dependent on our perception of our situation. And therefore, entirely within our control. What can fuck this up for us, though, is having too many options available to us, and spending too much time exploring those other options in our heads. I’ve touched upon this subject before, when I wrote about “indecision angst”.
In our society, there probably isn’t really much we can do about reducing the number of options that we have available to us. I think the main thing is to just accept our circumstances, stop trying to control everything, and stick to our decisions, and stop comparing our lot with others. “Just”, I say! That’s a whole bunch of stuff that we need to master. But, baby steps. I am already working on these things, and now that I understand the significance and know that this too can lead to happiness, maybe it will become easier. I think just by taking some time each day to notice and appreciate what we do like about our circumstances we can get a lot closer to achieving synthetic happiness.
What Daniel Gilbert didn’t actually come out and say, but that I inferred from the lecture, is that in the long run synthetic happiness is better than natural happiness. Better, in that it is longer lasting and more obtainable than natural happiness. It seems to me that as we adapt to a situation the natural happiness will eventually wear off once the thing that we wanted which brought about natural happiness has become normal to us. Because synthetic happiness is something we can create once we accept our situation, it should therefore be long lasting, and able to be applied again and again as we adapt or our situation changes.
To sum up, the steps to achieving synthetic happiness are: acceptance of the situation we have either found ourselves in or decided on; not dwelling on what could be; not comparing what we have with what others have; not trying to control all outcomes; and noticing and expressing gratitude for the good things that we all have.
I realise it will be a whole lot of hard work to get to a point where we can naturally do these things, but I do believe it is the only sure-fire path to happiness and therefore worth the effort. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have goals, if there is something you want to achieve, then by all means follow your dreams. Just make sure you don’t put off being happy until you get there. Because the natural happiness you get from reaching your goal may only last three months!