The Secret to Happiness

What is your answer to this question…?

Which person do you think is happier– a person who has won the lottery one year after he/she won, OR a person who has become a paraplegic one year after he/she lost the use of his/her legs?

It seems sort of obvious to most that if, given that choice themselves, they’d choose the first believing that winning the lottery would make them happier than being wheelchair bound. In an actual study of both groups of people, they actually all reported the same level of happiness in their life.

I recently watched a 20-minute presentation by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert on (Technology, Entertainment, Design– which is an annual conference where intelligent, innovative people in their field come together to share ideas) about happiness and I thought it was good enough to write a post about.

Studies have shown, that pretty much any life event that we believe at the time could be life-changing (getting a promotion or not, failing or passing a college exam, moving or not moving, breaking up with a partner or staying together), have no measurable impact on the happiness of our lives 3 months after the event takes place. Of course those things do change the course of your life, but they don’t impact your level of happiness.

In essence, Dr. Gilbert suggests that we have a “psychological immune system” that lets us feel real, enduring happiness, even when things don’t go as planned. He calls this kind of happiness “synthetic happiness,” and he says it’s “every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.”

Gilbert breaks happiness into two categories. “Synthetic happiness” vs. “natural happiness.” Natural happiness is the happiness we feel when we get something we want or put effort into striving for– we interview for a job and get it, we hope that cute guy will ask us out and he does, we apply for a loan and get it. Synthetic happiness is the happiness we create when we don’t get what we want– for example, we DON’T get a job and instead get a different job and then say “Wow, I’m really glad I didn’t get that first job because the second one was so much better and if I had gotten that first job, I wouldn’t have accepted the second one.”

Most people feel that “synthetic happiness” is inferior to “natural happiness.” We are predisposed to hear our friend talking about how much happier he is that he DIDN’T get a job he wanted and we react by thinking “Poor guy… he’s trying to be positive about the situation because he really wanted the job he didn’t get.”

Gilbert proposes that our thinking about synthetic happiness being inferior is actually wrong. In reality, our friend isn’t convincing himself he’s happy, he’s experiencing true happiness about the situation.

He also suggests that freedom to choose is the friend of natural happiness but the enemy of synthetic happiness. There was an experiment at Harvard where they asked photography students to take two photos they chose as the best two photos they’ve taken out of several rolls of film. Then they split the students into two groups. The first group is told they have to give one picture up, can only keep one, but if they ever change their mind, they can swap the photos and ask to exchange it for the one they gave up. The other group is told they have to give up one of the photos, they have two minutes to make the decision, and they’ll never see the photo they gave up ever again. The first group, it was discovered, spent a great deal of time, even after the decision was made, wondering if they’d made the right decision, wondering if they should exchange it for the other, and even after the deadline to exchange it had passed, showed they weren’t as happy with their decision to keep the photo they did as the students who had to quickly make a choice and “got stuck” with the one they chose. That second group was actually happier with their chosen photo months later.


point is… the human brain has the ability to be happy regardless of the situation due to synthetic happiness. Yet, we place so much importance on natural happiness (which is much harder to achieve than synthetic happiness) that we can actually cripple our ability to experience

synthetic happiness by this obsession with natural happiness.

I find that to be good news. The more we agonize over a decision, the more less happy we feel with the decision afterward. When we aren’t given a choice, we accept our circumstances and move on.

I can relate to this very well. I’m the type of person who feels happiest when I’ve made a decision and can move on accepting that the decision is what it is. I don’t like being in situations where I am “in limbo” and weighing option after option. For example, a year ago when Christopher and I were out looking at apartments to move in together, Christopher– who is very comfortable with being in limbo– kept wanting to look at different places. Weekend after weekend of touring apartments, I found myself getting more and more stressed and hating the process. Christopher could see me getting stressed and not really recognizing WHY I was feeling like that, we decided just to keep our own places for the time being.

Anyway, for me, watching the 20-minute presentation was well worth the time. I actually watched it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Recognizing that synthetic happiness is a real thing and not just something someone pretends to have to “justify” not getting what they originally wanted helps me keep in perspective that there are very few “live or die” choices and agonizing over decisions will actually make you less happy with your ultimate decision than if you didn’t.