“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Mahatma Gandhi
The human brain has grown 3 times bigger over the past 2,000,000. One of the most significant evolutionary changes in our brain is the growth of the prefrontal cortex.
A crucial feature of the prefrontal cortex is its ability to simulate experiences. This means we can estimate how we would think and feel during certain situations without the actual experience. The same brain mechanism has been discovered to have a direct link to our perception of happiness.1
Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor most known for his studies on predicting happiness, proposed the concept of synthetic happiness.
According to Dr. Gilbert, synthetic happiness is what we create when we don’t get what we want. Conversely, natural happiness is the outcome we feel when we get what we want.2
The most surprising finding, when Dr. Gilbert compared the two types of happiness, is that both are equally just as good. The following experiments have been used to support Dr. Gilbert’s findings.
THE LOTTERY EXPERIMENT
During one of Dr. Gilbert’s lectures, he asked the audience to predict which future scenarios will make a person happier: (1) Winning $300 million in the lottery, or (2) Becoming a paraplegic.
The audience naturally chose scenario (1) as a happier future. However, Dr. Gilbert revealed that his research showed that after a year into said scenarios, both lottery winners and paraplegics were just as equally satisfied with their lives.1
What led the audience to answer the way they did?
Impact bias is the term Dr. Gilbert used to explain why the audience assumed that winning the lottery would lead to a happier future. According to the research, impact bias is our inclination to overestimate the effect a situation will have on our future disposition. Follow-up studies by Dr. Gilbert have even concluded that significant occurrences in our lives – such as losing or winning an election, losing or gaining a romantic partner, and getting hired or fired – have less impact on our long-term satisfaction than we would assume.
The conducted experiments supported the claim that we can synthesize happiness when we got through life struggles (e.g. becoming a paraplegic). Further findings have also suggested that the average normal person can naturally change their views to thrive and live a genuinely happy life.
The discourse on the lottery experiment’s results deduced a common statement – and that is, people who synthesize happiness have no other choice but to do so. Otherwise, they will be miserable. They don’t have a choice!
The next experiment provided a rebuttal.
THE CLAUDE MONET STUDY
The objective of the study was to determine whether having a choice led to natural happiness.
Participants were asked to rank six Monet prints from most-to-least liked. After ranking the prints, the participants were then given a choice to take either their 3rd or 4th preferred print home. As predicted, all participants chose their 3rd most liked print.
However, when participants were asked to re-rank the prints after some time, the majority of participants placed the copy they owned higher than their most preferred print during the first round. Furthermore, their 4th most preferred print was ranked even lower than originally declared.
A direct quote from Dr. Gilbert summarized the findings – “liking for owned objects increases and liking for unowned objects decreases.” According to the Harvard Psychology department, this bias toward synthetic happiness has been consistent for over the past 50 years.3
The data from this study negated the statement that people who synthesize happiness have no other choice but to do so because the participants were presented with positive options, yet, they still changed their perspectives to feel even happier about the decision they made. Therefore, we can conclude that synthesized happiness is real happiness.
However, another counter-argument arose after the case study, and it targeted the variable of having limited options (i.e. the 3rd or 4th ranked print).
The next experiment was conducted to find out if having unbound options can make us happier.
THE PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS EXPERIMENT
Gilbert offered a photography class to a group of Harvard students and told them to take 12 photographs of meaningful things. After the photos were developed, he told one-half of the class that they had to give up one photo (as proof of completing the course). They had to decide before they exited the room, and their decision was irreversible.
The other half was told that they also had to give up one photo as proof, but they had six days to decide and that they could change their minds within those days.
The results showed that the students who made the irreversible choice were completely happy with their photos. On the other hand, the students who were presented with reversible options were unhappy with their photo and remained to feel as such after the six-day switching period.
The results suggest that boundless options do not equate to natural happiness. Also, having an array of choices impedes us from synthesizing happiness.3
To prove the results further, Dr. Gilbert gathered another set of Harvard students who were presented with the option of taking a photography class where they had to give away an output for good or a class wherein they can pick and switch the submitted photo at any time.
Knowing what he already knew about impact bias and happiness prediction, Dr. Gilbert discovered that 66% of the students still chose the class with the reversible option.
What this proves is, most of us have been wired to overrate or underestimate the permanence of a situation. This wiring clouds our perception. We feel pressured to opt for this or that because the opposite outcome will be much worse.
The short takeaway from the three experiments is this: We can create authentic happiness for ourselves.
It is up to us to break free from patterns that keep us stuck. Let us remember that happiness is not the goal itself, but rather, it is the outcome of the life we choose to live.