With many millennials abandoning the “traditional,” idealized life path of college, job, marriage, kids, retirement, traditional measures of what it means to be successful have been abandoned, too. For lots of us, the goal isn’t to work our way up the ladder at work. Rather than trying to reach a certain rung, we’re gauging success by something else— happiness.
But happiness is almost harder to pin down than a dream job. Or is it? Happiness expert Dan Gilbert believes that self-made happiness—the kind your brain manufactures for you—is just as potent as “natural” happiness. And what we think will make us “genuinely” happy usually doesn’t.
Your brain, the experience simulator
What is it like to be kicked in the shins? Without actually being kicked in the shins, you know it’s not something you want to experience. Why? Because our brains are capable of simulating experiences, a feature that is unique to modern humans.
Gilbert teaches psychology at Harvard University and is the author of “Stumbling on Happiness.”
“Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life,” Gilbert said in a TED talk on the science of happiness. “This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do, and that no other animal can do quite like we can. It’s a marvelous adaptation.”
But there’s a catch. Though we’re capable of playing out scenarios in our heads and predicting how we would feel if we experienced them in real life, our experience simulators are often faulty. Gilbert posed a question: What would make you happier—winning the lottery or sustaining an injury that leaves you paraplegic?
The answer seems obvious. But the reality isn’t what you think. The truth is, a year after winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, people who experienced either are just about equally happy.
Although we can make predictions about what would make us happy or unhappy, we’re not actually that good at it, Gilbert said. We tend to overrate how much one outcome will make us happy over another.
“From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have,” he said. “This almost floors me—a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.”
This is because we are also able to “synthesize” happiness—to find happiness and peace right where we’re at in life, Gilbert believes. It’s a powerful tool that’s built right into our brains.
What is ‘synthetic happiness’?
When we hear people who have been through hardships—a bad breakup, a run-in with the law, a missed opportunity—talk about how they are happier now than they ever have been, we might outwardly cheer them on. But inside, we might be rolling our eyes. “Sure, keep telling yourself that,” we might be thinking.
That’s because we value “natural” happiness over “synthetic” happiness, Gilbert said. The experience simulators in our brains are telling us that there’s no way that person could actually be happy after having gone through something so bad.
“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted,” he said. “And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.”
“Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?”
Through a series of experiments that involved prints of Monet paintings, Gilbert discovered that though people predicted they’d want to have the option to change their mind about what print to take home, they were happier when the choice was essentially made for them. Those folks ended up liking their artwork more than the people who had the option to swap.
Our brains are wired with a “psychological immune system” that can help us stay happy even in situations that aren’t ideal, Gilbert said.
“It turns out that freedom, the ability to make up your mind and change your mind, is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one that you would most enjoy,” he said. “But freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.”
It’s the same reason you’ll be more satisfied online dating when you have limited options rather than when you have an overwhelming number of options.
In this life, it’s a safe bet that you won’t always get what you want. Luckily, it’s been scientifically shown that this synthetic happiness is just as potent as the natural happiness we’re all seeking, Gilbert said.
If you’re constantly running after the next thing you think will make you happy, take a break to feel at peace with where you are right now. After all, our experience simulators aren’t as reliable as we give them credit for.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.