The Secret to Happiness
Can you manufacture happiness? According to Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, you can create “synthetic happiness“. Professor Gilbert says that it is possible to create a sort of optical illusion of the mind and make an imagined happy feeling a real one.
Now wait a minute. Before you think this as some new age hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo, let’s examine Professor Dan Gilbert‘s credentials and his study. Firstly, Professor Gilbert’s study is supported with clinical research drawn from psychology and neuroscience. He is generally considered the world’s foremost authority in the fields of affective forecasting and the fundamental attribution error.
Dan Gilbert is a Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory. He has published numerous scientific articles and chapters, several short works of fiction, and is the editor of “The Handbook of Social Psychology”. He has been been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association, fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Philosophical Society, and has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in the Behavioral Sciences.
In 2002, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin listed Gilbert as one of the fifty most influential social psychologists of the decade, and in 2003 one of his research papers was chosen by the editors of Psychological Inquiry as one of four “modern classics” in social psychology.
At 19, he was a high school dropout with dreams of writing science fiction. When a creative writing class at his community college was full, Dan Gilbert (already a father) enrolled in the only available course: psychology. He found his passion there, earned a doctorate in social psychology in 1985 at Princeton, and has since won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Phi Beta Kappa teaching prize for his work at Harvard. He has written essays and articles for The New York Times, Time and even Starbucks, while continuing his research into happiness at his Hedonic Psychology Laboratory.
Dan Gilbert’s immensely readable book “Stumbling on Happiness“, published in 2006, became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages.
Well that is Professor Gilbert’s credentials. But what exactly is his secret on synthetic happiness?
According to Dan, the secret to Synthetic Happiness is “what we make (i.e. choose) when we don’t get what we wanted”. Whereas Natural Happiness is “what we get when we get what we wanted”. He says that by changing one’s perception of what is good and bad, we have the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience. Dan says that synthetic happiness is “every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.”
He challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel real, enduring happiness, he says, even when things don’t go as planned. Synthetic happiness enables you to imagine an experience in your head before you actually try it out in real life. This happens because our brain acts like an experience simulator generating the appropriate response to your needs. In his study, he found that paraplegics were just as happy as lottery winners one year later.
“The human brain is, at every level, a change detector,” Gilbert explained. Change, not stable qualities, is what the senses are attuned to. Eyes don’t see objects, for instance, but changes in objects, so they constantly jiggle in order to keep the visual world in motion. Or take smell: That smelly guy on the subway doesn’t smell himself, Gilbert explained, because “three weeks ago he ripened to perfection; his smell isn’t changing so he can’t detect it.”
It’s the same way when evaluating the value of things like DVDs or cars or jobs — the brain looks for comparisons. When we buy things, we get excited and reach for our wallets when we see a “price cut” or discount. The change in the price of a product is a delight and makes us happy (at least temporarily).
What Dan says here is that in reality, gaining or losing something turns out to have far less impact and duration than you expect them to have. After about three months, the event (or item) has virtually no impact on your happiness… Your ‘psychological immune system’ actually works best when you have no other alternative but to go forward. When this happens, your mind finds a way to be happy with your reality. This is not the same as a fatalistic acceptance and resignation to one’s fate. But rather, it is one in which you make a conscious choice of another reality that will give you more long term happiness than any future you could not get.
Professor Gilbert’s study is in line with many other studies which demonstrates that happiness is a state of mind. Happiness is what we make of a situation. If you can’t be happy from within, and be satisfied with what you have or who you are, then you will never be truly happy. Appreciate what you have and your troubles will become insignificant. Concentrate on having more fun and less on collecting “stuff” and we will find the stress of living fading away. The Danes are said to be the happiest people in the world because they have “low expectations” of material things. If you desire less, and aspire more, you too can be happy.
Positive emotions are the key to life. Olympic champions manage their expectations of success for maximum happiness. If you do what you love and share it with others, you will experience joy like no other.
Once you are happy, and you know how to stay healthy, being successful would be within your reach.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Herman Cain
Now let’s watch Dan Gilbert’s engaging and hilarious 22 minute lecture on YouTube (available online only recently).
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