Have you ever desired to be in the place of this happy family on the cover of magazines, or to live the same passionate love story as that couple on a TV show? Our society – probably more than any other before – makes you feel the urge to “be happy”. At the same time, the trick of consumerism is to make happiness a never ending and unattainable quest.
How would you react if we told you that you actually have the capacity to manufacture your own happiness?
As Abraham Lincoln reportedly put it some 150 years ago, “people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Since then, behavioural researchers have worked hard to put scientific terms on this observation. Dan Gilbert, a professor in psychology at Harvard University, distinguishes two terms to describe this phenomenon: natural and synthetic happiness. The first refers to happiness as we usually tend to picture it: the deep feeling of joy you experience when you finally get the job you wanted or date the person you are in love with. Synthetic happiness however is a feeling of happiness that you can unconsciously create, even when you do not get what you wanted. Remarkably, Gilbert claims that synthesised happiness makes you feel as good and is as long-lasting as the natural ‘version’.
This is all very appealing but it opens a new question: how can one attain or ‘manufacture’ this alternative state of happiness? As a matter of fact, it does not require any special trick. It lies actually at the heart of human nature and relies on the amazing capacity of every person to adapt to his environment. This holds both for changes in the physical world around us as in psychological terms. A famous study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman compared the happiness levels of three groups: lottery winners, paraplegics (as a result of an accident), and people who hadn’t won a lottery nor were disabled. Common sense would make one inclined to think that the lottery winners would have a higher level of happiness than the disabled. On the short term, this must be true. Brickman and his team realised however that this initial effect had completely gone within a year. As time passed, participants adapted to their new situation, with no measurable difference in their respective happiness levels one year after the win of the lottery or the accident.
Human nature is of course more complex. One of the main obstacles in today’s society, which hampers our ability to manufacture happiness through adaptation, is the abundance of choice to which one is confronted. Excessive freedom, and the availability of multiple alternatives, can act as a paralysing factor. The study of Barry Schwartz is enlightening in this regard to understand the ‘paradox of choice’. During his observations, participants in a supermarket were offered the opportunity to taste and purchase six jams. In another setup, the number of jams was 24. Unexpectedly, Schwartz realised that when the number of jams increased, the level of interest and of purchase decreased rather than increased.
From these observations it can be concluded that too much freedom can actually be detrimental to one’s level of happiness. When faced with a limited number of options, a person can more easily adapt to his or her limits and make the most out of what is available. In other words, it makes ‘synthesizing’ easier. This observation is certainly not an argument to set ambitions aside and be complacent. On the contrary, it is by identifying your own ambitions and striving to attain your personal objectives that you will attain the highest levels of satisfaction. There is no point in considering fifteen different careers that are not fit to you. This will only make you unhappy. Instead, the lesson learned here is to focus on what you want and to restrict your panel of possibilities to what could give you most satisfaction – then, whatever the result, synthetic happiness will do the rest!
Brickman, Philip, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, ‘Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 36, No. 8, 917-927 (1978).
Gilbert, Dan, ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ (2006)
Schwartz, Barry, ‘The Paradox of Choice’ (2004)