How to Synthesize Happiness

08/19/2016 05:42 pm ET
The science behind making lemonade out of life's lemons.
The science behind making lemonade out of life's lemons.

One way or another, everyone wants to be happy. We may have different routes that take us there, but we’re all looking to build a life worth living.

Yet, so many of us tend to put conditions on our happiness. We place demands upon our fate: If only I had a better job. If only he/she loved me. If I could just win the lotto. Or, we decry the hand that life has dealt us: If only I were skinnier. If I’d just stayed in school. If only that had never happened to me.

Dreams and aspirations can be healthy motivators in our lives, but this kind of demanding, internal self-talk can be seriously damaging. We’re telling ourselves daily, I could be happy—if only I lived another life, if only I weren’t me.


The Myth of Natural Happiness 

Our society values the brand of happiness that occurs naturally—meaning the happiness we find when we get what we want. We tend to think this is the only way to truly feel happy.

We measure ourselves and our lives against so many standards of “success.” We compare ourselves—to our family members, our friends, that guy from high school on Facebook—telling ourselves daily that who we are is not enough.

Whatever curveballs life throws at us, we find a way to blame them for our lack of happiness: I can’t be happy because of who I am, what I’ve done, what has happened to me. When life doesn’t go our way, we assume we can’t be happy.

But science tells us the myth of “natural happiness” is entirely untrue. We have a biological superpower to make lemonade out of life’s lemons—and knowing this actually can help you live a happier life. Don’t believe it? I didn’t either. Let’s look at the evidence.


Psychological Immune System

As humans, our brains actually have the capacity to synthesize happiness. In a TED Talk, scientist Dan Gilbert talks about the difference between “synthetic happiness” and “natural happiness.” We know that natural happiness occurs when we get what we wanted. But synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted, and we tend to think that synthetic happiness isn’t of the same quality as “natural happiness.”

Gilbert describes the brain as having a “psychological immune system,” which helps us see the world differently so we can feel better about it. Ever hear someone say that losing a job or a bad break up was ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to them? Thank you, psychological immune system. Although we use a few proactive thought processes to make this change, it happens almost entirely subconsciously.

As Gilbert says, “We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.” We may think we’re better off when we get what we want and stumble across happiness “naturally.” But, Gilbert’s research shows that we can create happiness with the power of our brains that is just as real, long-lasting, and amazing.


Brain Power

It’s healthy to think about the future, and it’s pretty normal to feel disappointed if things don’t work out as planned. Our brains have the ability to imagine experiences in our heads—to simulate them—before we try them out in real life. We then make judgments about what we want, and what we think will make us happiest.

But, sometimes, our simulators are wrong—and this happens a lot. We don’t always know what we want, and, more often, what we want isn’t the only thing that can lead to happiness. It’s what we do with our experiences that makes us happy, or unhappy.

Try stepping into these two options for your future: you can win the lottery, or become paraplegic. The happier choice seems obvious, right?

But, as Gilbert explains, “a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.”

Field and lab studies have shown that getting dumped, missing a promotion, or failing a test actually don’t have such a long-lasting impact on our lives. Major life traumas can absolutely affect a person’s emotional states and coping behaviors. But, a recent study shows that, (for the most part) if it happened over three months ago, it has no impact whatsoever on your actual happiness.

This is because, no matter what cards we’re dealt, our brains find a way to synthesize our own happiness.


Happiness Synthesized in a Lab

Scientists have understood the phenomenon of synthesizing happiness in the human brain for 50 years. In the experiment Dan Gilbert discusses in his TED Talk, six Monet prints are brought into the lab. Participants rank these same 6 Monet prints from the one they like the most (#1), to the one they like the least (#6).

Then, each participant is told that he or she can take home one of the prints as a prize—but only number 3 or number 4 are available. Though neither of these prints is their preferred #1 choice, most people choose the higher-ranked print: number 3.

Participants receive their print and some time passes—it could be 15 minutes, or 15 days. Then, participants return, see the same 6 prints, and must re-rank them. Over and over again, the same result has been replicated: participants rank their take-home-prize print higher than they did the first time, and rank they print they left behind lower.

Though participants don’t get what they want (print #1), they manage to synthesize happiness. In Gilbert’s words, “The one I got is really better than I thought! That other one I didn’t get sucks!”


Still Don’t Believe It?

Another experiment was conducted, just in case you need more convincing.

Researchers have conducted the same experiment, but with hospitalized patients with anterograde amnesia. “They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself, and then leave the room, when you come back, they don’t know who you are,” Gilbert says.

The Monet prints are taken to the hospital, the patients rank them, and most choose to take home print number 3. Everyone leaves the room for half an hour, then returns. By this time, patients can’t even remember meeting the experimenters before, can’t remember ever seeing the Monet prints. When asked to identify which print they took home last time, they just guess—they can’t pick out the print they own.

They’re asked to rank the prints, once again, and amnesiacs still replicate the same result: These people like better the print that they own, but they don’t even know that they own it.

Synthesized happiness isn’t just a consolation prize, cognitive rationalization invented to comfort ourselves. The amnesiac experiment shows people synthesizing happiness on a subconscious level, by “really, truly chang(ing) their affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster.”


Here’s The Kicker

Further experiments found the situation that allows us to synthesize happiness most effectively: When we have no choice, “when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped.”

As humans, we believe freedom is key to finding happiness. We want the ability to change and make up our own minds. But this only serves our hunger for natural happiness, lusting after all of the “delicious futures” that we can imagine.

As Theodore Roosevelt says, “Comparison is the thief of joy,”

Dan Gilbert similarly explains, “Freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.” We make ourselves miserable comparing our reality to these delicious futures. When we are stuck (doomed, so to speak), we let go of comparisons. We are forced to relinquish some of our options and our psychological immune system is kicked into high gear.


Happiness Synthesized in Real Life

People accept the things they cannot change. Dan Gilbert gives real-life examples of synthesized happiness, too.

Jim Wright was the chairman of the House of Representatives, the most powerful Democrat in the country, but lost everything, his money, his power. But what does he have to say about it? “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and in almost every other way.”

Moreese Bickham spent 37 long years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t even commit. His perspective on it? “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Perhaps more well known is the story of Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles before they picked up Ringo on a tour. His feelings on being replaced? “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Someone who loses a job or endures a painful breakup is backed into a corner, which enables them to shift perspective and eventually say things like, it was ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to them. We are all capable of these paradigm shifts. When life deals us a crummy hand, a doomsday attitude ignores our very real human power to adapt, and the stake each of us can take in our own happiness.

We chase, fiend, and beg for the winds of fate to blow our sails towards happiness. The truth is, each of us is a happiness factory, a constantly renewable source of our own joy—if we just embrace our brains’ powers.


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