Have you ever wondered why is our life better than our grandparents’ generation, yet the world does not seem to be a happier place?
Compared to fifty years ago, many of us are fortunate to have better living and economic conditions, longer life expectancy, increased access to healthcare and education today. However, depression rate is increasing, more marriages fall apart, more people experience mid-life crisis, many others are relentlessly pursuing their happiness, be it a bigger house, a better job, the perfect partner, the coolest gadget, or whatever that may be.
There are various ways to explain this. Today, I will focus on two concepts of happiness. According to psychologist Daniel Gilbert:
- Natural happiness: what we experience when we achieve what we wanted
- Synthetic happiness: what we produce when we do not achieve what we wanted
Can we still be happy when we do not get what we have been dreaming of?
In his book Stumbling on Happiness (2007), Daniel Gilbert pointed out that we overestimate the impact of an event on our happiness level. An example he quoted is a well-known research comparing the happiness level of lottery winners and paraplegics, which uncovered that they are equally happy with their lives a year after the event (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). The author explained that our brain has a form of psychological immune system that helps us to “synthesize” happiness by changing the way we perceive the event so that we feel better about our situation.
In an experiment, Gilbert asked a group of participants to rank six prints according to their preferences, and then gave them one of these prints which was ranked 3 or 4 out of 6. After some time, the participants were asked to re-rank the prints, they all appeared to like the print they owned more than before. In order to demonstrate that it was not a conscious choice, the experiment was also carried out on a group of participants suffering from anterograde amnesia. While they could not remember which was the print they owned, the same result was produced.
This experiment is an evidence that synthesizing happiness is not about being sour grapes, but a natural cognitive process that happens in our brain. It is as real and long-lasting as the happiness you experience when you achieve what you wanted.
Now, I am not saying that we should all stop fighting for our dreams, however I would like to point out why the pursuit of natural happiness can be unsustainable:
- Due to cognitive and perception bias, our brain tends to overestimate the intensity and duration of the positive outcome of an action (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). The boost of happiness level you experience after landing your ideal job or marrying the love of your life does not last as long as you would imagine. Our brain is good in adapting, the happiness level would go back to normal after some time (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Therefore, if you are making a choice based on the expectation of how much happiness this would bring you, there is a chance that you may be disappointed.
- The law of diminishing marginal utility states that the marginal utility arised from each additional unit of consumption decreases as consumption increases (Kenton, 2019). To put it simply, the satisfaction you get from eating the sixth slice of your favorite pizza is less than when you had the first slice.
- We are exposed to an abundance of choices: newer and cooler technology, online marketing, overflowing information on the internet. We are constantly reminded that there may be better options out there that could potentially bring us more happiness. Therefore, natural happiness can be a never-ending pursuit.
Instead of constantly pursuing natural happiness from the outside world, we should shift our focus inward to synthesize and savor happiness. Here are some suggestions:
A research project called Track Your Happiness has uncovered that our minds wander 47% of the waking time, and we are much less happy when our minds are wandering than when we are focused (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Therefore, being mindful, which means being present in the moment, is a key element to happiness. Among many other benefits, research has identified that mindfulness improves our decision-making process as it reduces our tendency to make an irrational decision based on sunk costs (Hafenbrack, Kinias & Barsade, 2013), and enables us to make better prediction of the outcome of a choice (Liu, Liu & Ni, 2018). There are many ways to practice mindfulness, you can start small by paying attention to your thoughts and actions, as well as setting aside time every day to do some breathing exercise or meditation.
Limit your choices
According to Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less (2004), excessive choices can be harmful to our psychological and emotional well-being. One reason is the opportunity cost and regret, as every choice you make has an opportunity cost associated with it. It can also be due to social comparison. While you don’t necessarily have to wear the same outfit every day like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, you can start simplifying your life by avoiding window shopping and unsubscribing from excessive marketing mailing lists.
Research has found that while we prefer to make reversible decisions, we are more likely to be satisfied with our decisions when they are unchangeable (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). Synthetic happiness occurs mostly when we are stuck, and freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness (Gilbert, 2007). Therefore, I would think that commitment is a friend of synthetic happiness. Committing to a decision means consciously walking into a decision without leaving the door behind open. It means getting married with the expectation of being in it forever, staying on a new job even when it stresses you out, making a purchase without the expectation of returning it if you find a better one next door. It is only when we are fully committed to our decision that our brain can start synthesizing happiness.
Our brain is naturally wired to focus more on the negativity, therefore positive emotions are fleeting while negative feelings tend to linger around. Savoring is an attempt to fully engage, appreciate and hold on to the positive experience we have (Seligman, 2002, p. 107). Instead of scrolling through Instagram when you are having a good coffee, put your phone down, pay attention to the fragrance, taste, and sensation you feel as you take a sip. You can also practice savoring by visualizing a past positive event as detail as possible and focus on how you feel for a few moments. By reliving the joyful moment, it increases the intensity and duration of the positive emotions.
You can start practicing gratitude by writing down three things that you are grateful for before going to bed. While it may not seem easy to find three positive things every day but trust me, the more you practice the easier it becomes. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be as small as an exchange of a few words with a kind stranger, discovering a nice café, an ice cream you treat yourself on a sunny afternoon. You will soon realize that positive events happen all the time, if you pay close attention to them.
I would like to share a quote from The Little Prince (Saint-Exupéry & Howard, 2000):
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… “
“They don’t find it,” I answered.
“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”
“Of course,” I answered.
And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
Let’s stop searching for happiness. It is within us, if you look closely enough.
May you find the happiness in you.