Synthesizing “happiness”

Do you ever wonder why you’re here?  What the purpose and meaning of life is? Whoa! Too deep, I haven’t even had my morning coffee yet! Alright, so I don’t even drink coffee, but I do ponder these philosophical questions every once in a while.  The same internal answer always seems to appear: “Well, I just want to be happy” (is what my Western-cultured mind says).  But, what is “happiness”?  And how exactly does one become “happy”?

Blue skys in Calgary, Canada.

According to PsyBlog (one of my favourite psychology blogs, by the way), there are two competing definitions of happiness:

Definition 1) “Happiness is all about minimising pain and maximising pleasure”.   This means that on your deathbed, the number of ‘pleasurable’ moments versus ‘painful’ moments would give you a mathematical measure of how ‘happy’ you are.

Interesting, interesting… but do you see any problems with this definition? I don’t know about you, but I would say that while I generally tend to seek “pleasurable” moments rather than “painful” ones, I would also argue that some of my best and most emotionally significant memories are ones that were (at least) somewhat painful, usually involving some sort of difficulty or challenge.  Only upon overcoming that challenge, did I experience the “pleasurable moment”. In retrospect, one could even say that the “painful” moments were “not that bad”, or dare I say “an opportunity for growth and character building”? Perhaps this is complete and utter bullcrap, but it does remind me of a great TED talk by Brene Brown.  Brown argued that the full range of human emotions, positive or negative, are part of the human experience; if you avoid or don’t allow yourself to feel the negative emotions, you also cut yourself off from the capacity to fully experience the positive ones.

Hypothetically then, this perspective brings forth the question – if life consists of a never-ending series of highs without any lows, would the “highs” be still as pleasurable? In other words, if you consistently seek highs and do not allow yourself to experience any lows, is that “happiness”?

Definition 2) “Happiness is satisfaction with life as a whole” – in other words, the meaning you attach to the things you do or experience in your life.

The level of choice inherent in this definition appeals to me – I like the idea that you can choose the meaning you assign to events in your life.  This reminds me of Daniel Gilbert’s TED talk on “the surprising science of happiness”.

The coastal path, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland.

He describes a part of the brain called the “prefrontal cortex”, which is our “experience simulator”.  To demonstrate the function of our “experience simulators”, Gilbert asked the audience to contemplate two different futures and pick the one in which they think they will be happiest. The choices are:  A) Winning the lottery, B) Becoming paraplegic.  No question as to which one people chose.  The thing is though, our “experience simulators” are not always right.  It makes us believe that the events that could happen in our lives (e.g. winning or losing an election, getting or not getting a romantic partner, gaining or losing a promotion, etc.) will be much better or much worse than they really are.  In reality, such events have “far less intensity and far less duration that people expect them to have”.  This might explain study results of people who won the lottery and people who became paraplegic who end up “equally happy with their lives” one year after the event.  This might explain why a 78-old man exonerated from a crime he didn’t commit, exclaimed in an interview “I don’t have one minutes regret, it was a glorious experience” with regards to his 38 year penitentiary stay.

What the heck is going on here??! Surely, becoming paraplegic or being wrongly convicted of a crime would lead to a much lower quality of life than wining the lottery!?  According to Gilbert, the answer is this:  natural versus synthetic happiness.  Natural happiness is what we feel when we get what we wanted (i.e. Choice A: Winning the lottery).  Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted (i.e. Choice B: becoming paraplegic).  Synthetic happiness works best in situations when “we are totally stuck or trapped”.  You can think of it like a psychological immune system – a set of (mostly) non-conscious cognitive processes that helps us feel better about our lives when we have no choice to go back.

This is crazy, isn’t it? Does this mean that whenever something happens in which we had no choice over, we tell ourselves a more comforting story to feel better? Perhaps this is why, as Gilbert states, most people “believe synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind” (when compared to natural happiness).  I guess this is because no one likes the idea of lying to yourself, or playing make believe.  Yet, perhaps there is a different perspective one could take here.  As Gilbert argues, synthetic happiness is every bit as “real”, “enduring” and “significant” as natural happiness.  This means that human beings actually have the capability to “create the very commodity we are constantly chasing”.   Why not, then, take an undesirable situation and make it better?  Since almost nothing in life happens exactly the way we plan, synthetic happiness seems to be a valuable tool in assigning the meaning and value we so desire in our everyday lives.  And since we seem to be somewhat poor predictors of what we think we want anyway (i.e. natural happiness), I wonder if synthetic happiness might actually be the true happiness that one experiences daily?

Well, that’s my rant for today.  What are your thoughts?

Sprüngli macaroons, Zurich, Switzerland.

6 thoughts on “Synthesizing “happiness”

  1. I have to say that I find both “definitions” kind of weird. Actually, any definition of happiness, in my opinion, attempts to quantify something that can’t be and shouldn’t be quantified. But what bothers me even more is the retrospect aspect of happiness in this theory, trying to find an answer to something that is too subjective and relative to be measured.

    More than 15 years ago, I listened to a radio interview of a (at the time) young German book author. Although I can’t recall his name nor the exact quote, I never forgot the core message: He said that many people only realize their “happy moments” in life after they experienced them. The secret to happiness, he argued, is realizing the moment of happiness while you’re experiencing it.

    I think this is way more important than trying to measure, compare, evaluate, and rate happiness. Otherwise you fail to enjoy the moment and constantly look back to this one moment you “might have felt happier” (definition 1) or ask yourself if your life as a whole was “happy enough” until now (definition 2).

  2. According to another awesome celebrity blogger, Joel Splotsky, the more control that we have over things, the happier we are (at work, at least). I tend to agree. Just another viewpoint to conflate the issue. 😉
    Good to see you’ve mindfully landed on your feet in Switzerland!

  3. Always when I read about this topic I remember words of an old Serbian writer (and a prince of Montenegro), Petar Petrovic:

    “None yet ever drank a cup of honey
    without a cup of bitter gall,
    Cup of gall calls for cup of honey
    – mixed they’re easiest to swallow.”

    That’s a quote from his poem “Mountain wreath”, from 1846.

    And it also expresses my feelings about the topic very well. Maybe you’ll like it too. 😉

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