Natural vs. Synthetic Happiness

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Topic: Human Interest

Alexandra Jemetz CIM

December 31, 2019

Image used with permission: iStock/oatawa


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Natural vs. Synthetic Happiness

As we welcome the New Year, we take time to reflect on days gone by and wonder about what lies ahead. We hope for things which make us happy.

But we all know that bad stuff happens all the time. And yet, “People judge themselves as experiencing more positive emotional reactions on average.”(1) In other words, most people believe they are happier than the average. How can that be?

The answer, perhaps, is because there are two types of happiness. Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want. Such is the gist of Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology Dan Gilbert in his 2004 TED Talk entitled “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” I think the concept is best illustrated by Gilbert’s examples, which show individuals making their own happiness synthetically:

After a scandal forced him to resign in disgrace as Speaker of the House, former Congressman Jim Wright was quoted saying: “I am so much better off, physically, financially, mentally, and in almost every way.”

After spending 37 years in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana on conviction of murder, Moreese Bickham was discharged on good behaviour at the age of 78. Of his time in prison he said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Harry S. Langerman passed up an opportunity to be one of the first MacDonald’s franchise owners, giving up hundreds of millions of dollars in potential fortune (as Ray Kroc eventually amassed from his early-begotten franchises). Harry was known to have uttered these words “I believe it turned out for the best.”

Pete Best, who was the original drummer for the Beatles – and would have continued to be had the rest of the band not dropped him for Ringo Starr – said: “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Gilbert then mocks his own theories by pointing out that there are important lessons to be learned here about how to attain happiness:

  • Accrue wealth, power and prestige. Then lose it.
  • Spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.
  • Make someone else really, really rich.
  • Never, ever, join the Beatles.

We may smirk at these people’s rationalizations, perhaps because we think synthetic happiness is inferior to the natural kind. After all, Gilbert muses, “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?” But, think again. According to Gilbert, they’re actually equal! He goes on to provide a number of supportive examples based on tests run in Harvard labs to prove it.

Now, it’s one thing to test this concept in a clinically run lab. But this theory can, in fact, be applied to everyday life and the decisions that we make – including those of the investment kind. Here’s a basic one. Anyone invested in capital markets pretty much has to believe that, over the long run, markets go up. When the market goes up, we experience natural happiness. When it goes down, say 10%, we are displeased. But, you can see how easily it can be rationalized by: “Well, at least it didn’t go down 20%. And anyway, I’ve now got some capital losses to offset the gains. It’s a win!”

This works because we have no other choice than to accept it and do the humanly (though synthetically) natural thing and turn a negative into a positive. Gilbert sums it up like this: “Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”

So worry not, dear readers. There may be clouds in the sky. But they often have silver linings that your brain just has to create. And in the spirit of bringing on some natural happiness, we’ve siphoned through the typically dispiriting headlines of 2019 and found some good news to leave you with(2):

  • Worldwide terror attacks fell to the lowest level since 2011. Attacks by ISIS are down 71%.
  • Researchers have turned human stem cells into insulin-producing cells, raising hope for a cure for type 1 diabetes.
  • The earth is five percent greener now than it was two decades ago, according to NASA.
  • Scientists in the Galapagos have found a female member of a tortoise species believed to have gone extinct in 1906. Turtle Power!

From all of us at Nexus, we wish you much happiness in the coming year – whether it comes to you naturally… or synthetically!

Source: Dan Gilbert, TED 2004, “The Surprising Science of Happiness”.

(1) “Happier than thou? A self-enhancement bias in emotion attribution.”, Ong, Desmond C.,Goodman, Noah D.,Zaki, Jamil, Emotion, American Psychological Association.

(2) Inc.com/Jessica-stillman/the-5-happiest-headlines-of-2019-so-far.html.

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