Synthetic Happiness: You Can Be Happy No Matter What



“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Mahatma Gandhi

In a Ted Talk on Synthetic Happiness, Dan Gilbert talks about how we can create our own happiness and how it’s like a “mental immune system”.

You don’t need to get what you want to be happy.

You can be just as happy if you don’t get what you want, as you can if you get what you want.

It’s not just sour grapes.

You can manufacture your own happiness.

It’s synthetic happiness.

Happiness Can Be Synthesized

And the best news is, Synthetic Happiness is as real as the real deal.

Synthetic happiness acts like our psychological immune system.

It works to keep us happy.

It’s a system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change our views of the world so we can feel better about the worlds we find ourselves in.  It works best when we’re totally stuck, when we are trapped.  This is the difference between dating and marriage.

In dating, you look to get what you want, in marriage, you find a way to like what you’ve got.

Watch the Ted Talk Video on Synthetic Happiness

Key Take Aways

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, teaches us that synthetic happiness is just as real and enduring as real happiness.  Dan also teaches us that our longings and worries are overblown because we have the capacity to create happiness within ourselves rather than depend on experiences.  Here’s my key take aways:

  • Our prefrontal cortex is our experience simulator.  In 2 million years our brains grew almost 3 times as big.  As they grew, we got a new structure, the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex acts as an experience simulator.  None of our ancestors and no other animal can simulate experience the way we can.
  • Our mental simulator works badly.  We have impact bias.  Impact bias is our tendency for our mental simulator to work badly.  We imagine one scenario to be dramatically different from another scenario in terms of impact.  For example, the differences between winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test have far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than we expect.  The differences between winning or losing and getting or not getting is less significant because happiness can be synthesized.
  • Synthetic Happiness.  Synthetic Happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want.
  • Natural happiness .  Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want.
  • Synthetic Happiness is as real as natural happiness.  Synthetic Happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you get when you get exactly what you were aiming for.
  • Experiments show we can’t predict our happiness.  Experiments show time and again we can’t predict our happiness.  We overestimate our pleasures or overestimate our pains.  For example, we overestimate that winning the lottery will increase our happiness and we overestimate that losing the use of our legs will ruin it.
  • Experiments show that choices can negatively impact our happiness.  When we have choices we worry about opportunity lost.  When we don’t have choices we come to like what we’ve got, more than what we originally predicted.
  • Freedom is the friend of natural happiness.   When you get what you want, this is the playground of natural happiness.
  • Freedom to choose is the enemy of synthetic happiness.   When you don’t get what you want, this is the playground of synthetic happiness.
  • Our longing and worries are overblown.  Our longings and worries are overblown because we can manufacture our own happiness from within.

I really think “sour grapes” takes on a whole new light.  Maybe it’s just that your “bird in hand” really is worth two in the bush.

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  1. When I was in the army i successfully applied this synthetic happiness technique. When I woke up i was doing my morning exercise repeating loudly “I love army, I love army, I love army” – seems like i was creating synthetic happiness of being in the army (tell you a secret…. i hated it lot.)

  2. Hi JD,

    This is fascinating. I think most people can self-talk themselves into being happy, but I never knew there was a name for it. Thanks for this article about synthetic happiness with details and supporting evidence. Stumbled!

  3. In marriage you find a way to like what you got. That’s an awesome way of putting it.

    The mind is meant to adapt to situations. A lot of times we rebel against what should be natural. I do this at my job. I don’t like the changes so I complain, funny thing is two weeks later I’m fine with it. It’s about seeing beauty that wasn’t there before.

  4. I know this to be very true. I don’t have most of what I WANT (big mansion on an enormous lot with trees by the ocean, a maid, a really cool pants collection,) yet I am pretty happy. Of course, I’m in great health so that does make a diffenences in one’s outlook.

    Our house is in constanat re-model yet I come to blogs like yours and I feel all is well with the world.

  5. @ Alik

    The surprise of synthetic happiness is it matches natural happiness. I wonder though how we ultimately get to flip the switch and decide to be happy. Talk about user empowerment.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you! It’s cool that it has a name. It makes it easier to talk about it. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for some finer distinctions. I still want more precision around how we can flip the switch.

    @ Karl

    Great point on the adaptability of the mind. We’re a resourceful bunch, if we give our brains a chance. I think a big key here is asking the right questions to get ito the right mindset. One question I like is, “how to make the most of the current situation?”

    @ Jannie

    It sounds like you have a healthy outlook and that’s the most important part. Having your health helps a lot.

  6. In viewing all the treads here, I find that everyone has experienced their own personal happiness.
    I viewed the video, ( by Daniel Gilbert )Which was very insightful.
    Everyone has had a happiness factor. I have to consider that everyone that has a happiness factor, has probably experienced a natural, synthetic, or spiritual factor. To be more plain and clear, a psychosocial factor. How we respond to the elements, depends largely upon how we were trained to respond to such elements within our society. We either roll with the punches, ( synthetic happiness )or we had a plan through knowing what we were getting into, or we had a spiritual guide leading us through the valley of the damn.
    great threads..
    Micheal Tanner

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