When “natural” happiness withers under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it’s nice to know we can just make some more.
Making happiness may not be as easy as whipping up a batch of double chocolate brownies, but psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we humans have the capacity to manufacture happiness, and that “synthetic” happiness is indistinguishable from “natural” happiness.
Here’s how it works: Nick, a student in my college English class, is a bright, handsome 17-year-old. He is also blind. A year or so earlier, Nick had been shot in the face while bird hunting, losing his sight and very nearly his life. Nick wrote a lot about the experience of being blind in my class. He wrote about how to play beep baseball and about blind fishing. He would write things like, “I’m not sorry I became blind because I’ve learned to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’ve learned to rely on my other senses.”
While we tend to roll our eyes and dismiss such stories as Pollyanna-ish and the making of some pretty bitter lemonade, Gilbert suggests that the happiness that Nick is synthesizing out of his experience is every bit as real and long-lasting as the happiness people feel a year or so after having gotten something they thought they really wanted—like winning the lottery, for example. This is because, says Gilbert, we tend to overestimate both what will make us happy (winning the lottery) and what will make us miserable (being blind). And while we are pretty bad at anticipating what will make us happy, we are pretty good at synthesizing happiness when we don’t get what we want.
After a while both the happiness of winning the lottery and the sadness of becoming blind tend to even out, and most of us adapt to the situation in which we find ourselves. Time, like distance, says Plato, is a great equalizer, and it modulates both joy and sorrow. (Actually, he said, “What space is to size, time is to value.”)
In fact, says evolutionary biologist, Nancy Etcoff, our joys tend to be simple and ancient. We respond strongly, for example, to the natural world, which is why people heal faster when their windows overlook a pond rather than a brick wall.
Social interaction makes us happy, which may be part of the reason Facebook has become such a phenomenon. I’ve always thought that ice cream contributes to happiness, although that guilty pleasure probably doesn’t qualify as ancient.
Left to our own devices, we tend to be irrational in our choices. We usually choose a small reward now over a larger one later. (Fifty dollars now rather than sixty dollars in a month.) The value of a thing changes depending on comparison and circumstance. (Broccoli next to a bowl of ice cream is less appealing than broccoli next to a bucket of worms.) The good news, however, is that whatever the circumstance, we still, says Gilbert, “have the capacity to manufacture the very commodity [happiness] we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”
By Kate Convissor
Dip into a little joy at these great websites:
The Happiness Project. A thoughtful, comprehensive website maintained by Gretchen Rubin, a Yale-educated lawyer-turned-writer. Her book will be out early in 2010.
Gimundo. Little snippets of happiness from around the world.
Etcoff, Nancy. On the Surprising Science of Happiness. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Jun. 2009.
Gilbert, Dan. On Our Mistaken Expectations. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Dec. 2008.
Gilbert, Dan. Why Are We Happy? TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Sep. 2006.