Updated: Aug 31
Natural happiness is when people get what they want. When you get the job you want, when your loved one proposes to you, when your friend loves you the same way you do, when you ace a test, in all these instances you are happy. But that is not going to happen every time. Synthetic happiness is the feeling you create when you don’t get what you want. Synthetic happiness is as real as natural happiness. It acts like our psychological immune system. It works best when our choices are not reversible and when we’re totally stuck. This is the difference between dating and marriage, because marriage is a commitment and you find a way to accept your partner. If you made a choice, but you know that you can easily reverse your choice, you will agonize over whether you made the right choice, and end up not feeling satisfied with what you have. If you cannot reverse your choice, you will like what you had chosen a lot.
Abraham Lincoln stated this, some 150 years ago, “people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be”. We tend to always think about the negative things and fail to be grateful and positive. When you don’t get the job you want, maybe it is not a good fit for you, if the guy you loved rejects you, maybe he is not the one for you in the first place, if your best friend is not your friend anymore maybe they don’t appreciate your friendship, if you did not ace the test maybe the studying is still worth it.
Dan Gilbert, author of "Stumbling on Happiness," talks about synthetic happiness and shares experiments and studies that prove this behavior. He states that the prefrontal cortex is an experience simulator, it can simulate something happening in the future, so that you can assess different choices to make decisions. Humans have impact bias, we tend to overestimate the hedonistic impact of future events. Another 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. In the short term, this can be true. Brickman and his team realized 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 winning the lottery or the accident.
Here are a few tips that can change your life positively and help you synthesize happiness.
1. Judge less, Accept more: I’ve realized that I tend to assess people after knowing them for only a short period of time and form an idea about the kind of person they are. Since this assessment is purely based on just my experience of interacting with people, it can be flawed. George W. Bush has once said, "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions”. People can form different kinds of biases very quickly that leads to inaccurate judgments and later, it becomes difficult to erase these biases from our minds. I’d encourage everyone to read up on the different types of biases and develop the ability to recognize these biases and be aware of your thoughts. When you stop being judgmental and start accepting people by looking at the positive things they have to offer, life becomes more simple and merrier.
2. Complain less, Appreciate more: While it can be amusing to read about all the first world problems and micro-complaints (the petty kvetch about day-day) on social media, we need to be aware that we’re embracing and supporting a complaining culture. Social media in some ways has given people the support network to confess, complain and cry about everything from rude customer service, mediocre meals, an annoying baby crying next to your table and an obnoxious taxi driver who won’t shut up to complaining about not having time due to their busy careers and travel lifestyle. Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) can also be a contributor to complain about your life. Subconsciously, complaining can become a habit. To make myself more aware of the complaints I make throughout the day, I started writing my complaints and things that I’m grateful for. When I read through them towards the end of the day, I feel more appreciative of the life that I have and the complaints seem insignificant.
3. Worry less, Act more: This picture is self explanatory. When you can do something about your problems, act on it. Cultivating this behavior makes you feel stronger and confident in life. You start developing more resilience and good problem solving mechanisms. Life is not a bed of roses, it is what you make out of it.
4. Desire less, Contribute more: “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else” - Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Leading a life dedicated to pursuing money and having a lot of desire and wants, can lead to vice, unhappiness and lack of peace. While money might assure that we have access to necessities, it won't cure us from wanting more and of worrying about having them. Most of the time, losing money hurts because money is deemed very valuable. When you don’t get a refund on your expensive flight ticket, when you lose your expensive headphones, more often than not, we get really upset. My perspective about money is that it is a fictional story created by humans. There might come a day, where money can be of zero value if humans decide to change how society operates. There is more to this world than money like the responsibility to give back to the community, vitality to take charge of your life, love to share and make long lasting friendships, and beauty to admire in order to lead a meaningful life.