cultivate synthetic happiness

The Wrong Toolbox

Fair warning: this is going to be one of those posts where I bring up a need, something that’s missing from the  bulk of personal development blogs. In a nutshell, it’s our inability to cultivate synthetic happiness. I’ll go into what that is, but I feel the need to explain in advance that I don’t have a solution for the problem. But maybe, just maybe, if I lay out what I’m seeing, you’ll have a better grasp than me for what needs to be done.

The realization came as I was watching a colleague who specializes in relationship counseling for alternative relationships. She was outlining her suggestions to help people find the right partner, and I found myself nodding along with her as she talked. She said very important things that we all-to-often forget, such as maintaining our own identities and knowing our own boundaries and insisting on a partner who respects them. All very important, very good stuff.

Then she went on to suggest that you have a list of the things that you need in a relationship, the things that make you happy. If you are looking for a traditional domestic bliss type living situation, for example, you shouldn’t hook up with the person who is traveling the world from rave to rave. If your idea of a lovely day is hiking through the mountains, then the woman who spends the majority of her recreational time playing Skyrim is probably not the right person for you. Those are the gross exaggerations, of course, but you can get much more personal. What are your views on sexuality? Jealousy? Politics? History? All of these things can make or break relationships, and my colleague insisted that you should know what you need to be happy in a relationship before you start screening potential partners.

And that’s where my brain did a scooby-doo Ruh-Roh!

Find Natural Happiness or Cultivate Synthetic Happiness?

Happiness is like a box of chocolates. That is, you can try and go with the guide that’s written on the top of the box, but the odds are that somebody’s been there before and rearranged the pieces. Or that the description of the Toffee-Butterscotch-Wasabi-Pimento-Nougat won’t taste quite the way you expect.

The thing that’s strange, though, is that if I tell you that you only get one piece of chocolate, the odds are that even if you make a funny face at the first bite you will eventually tell somebody else “Oh, you should try that TBWPN chocolate – you’ll be surprised!” Dan Gilbert defines this as the difference between “natural” and “synthetic” happiness – that is, the difference between being happy because you stumbled on exactly what you wanted vs. the happiness you create when you don’t get what you want.

He explains it in detail, with bar graphs, in his TED talk. Part of Dr. Gilbert’s premise is that synthetic happiness is just as valuable and enduring as natural happiness, which is counter-intuitive to a lot of “authentic self” theories. He also points out briefly (and more extensively in his excellent book) that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy, and even worse at predicting how happy we’ll be whether we get what we want or not. This isn’t a hypothetical model; study after study has shown that our prefrontal cortex (i.e., imagination) is as wildly inaccurate as it is wonderfully entertaining.

And that’s where I suddenly had a problem with my colleague’s suggestion. If you make a list of the things you want, then the odds are that list is not going to actually be accurate. It’s going to be filled with the things you think you want, or the things you’re told you should want, or the things you wish you wanted (for example, I want to like doing yoga, but the best I can do is like having done yoga). Worse, if you take that list and apply it to a series of “candidates”, you are faced with choices. “Freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness,” Dr. Gilbert says, and I’m afraid he has the bar-graphs to back it up.

The Affective Hedonic Aesthetic Screwdriver

What I’m suggesting is that lists and speculation are not what we need to increase the odds of being happy. The last thing we need is another version of the Meyers-Briggs personality test. If you’re a fan, then I apologize, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, let me explain:

The idea behind the test is that people can measure various aspects of their character by answering questions about their attitude, perception, adjustment, and lifestyle. This gives you a four-letter category (“I’m INTJ!“) which you can then match up to jobs, social events, and even other people to figure out how compatible you are.

There are several problems with this, rather eloquently laid out by The Skeptoid. In particular, there is this: ” It’s been found that 50% of test takers who retake it score differently the second time…depending on their mood that day or other factors, may answer enough questions differently to push them over… This makes it possible for two people who are very similar to actually end up with completely opposite scores.

Lying to yourself is probably not the way to cultivate synthetic happiness.
Lying to yourself is probably not the way to cultivate synthetic happiness.

So not only are we bad at predicting what will make us happy: so is everybody else. There’s the problem: we concentrate so much on figuring out how to get what we want, when what we really need is a way to adjust to the things that we have – an “Affective Hedonic Aesthetic Screwdriver”, to steal a beat from Dr. Who. It should be noted, it’s not about rationalizing things: we do that already. It’s as ancient as Aesop and the tale of the “Sour Grapes.” I don’t know about you, but I never thought the Fox actually believed that he didn’t want the grapes. Rationalizing “I didn’t really want that anyway“, like affirmations, doesn’t seem to work terribly well, at least on their own.

Rather, we should be developing strategies for irrational situations like being happy with the things we didn’t expect. For example: the sudden gut-wrenching attraction to the person who doesn’t match our list.

Sounds like a good topic for Friday, yes? Any other ideas for the creation of your own personal “AHA Screwdriver”?


2 thoughts on “cultivate synthetic happiness”

  1. My AHA Screwdriver:

    Love what is. Find where and how I am profoundly grateful for whatever is arising in my life – now, and now, and now, and now. Become obsessive in my love affair with truth and reality. And when I can’t manage that in the moment, then I diligently look for how I can at least accept and live in harmony and integration with reality-as-it-is-right-now until I find the clarity to be loving it again. I never suffer except when I’m arguing with reality in the moment, which I only do when I am afraid of something I haven’t made peace with yet. And with this as my compass, I am free to then fearlessly work towards cultivating any relationships, things, and events in my life that I think would be desirable and happy-making.

    Results so far? Almost constant gratitude with frequent flashes of joy. Sometimes I get distracted and end up tired or impatient or confused, but it doesn’t last. And right now, I’m happy with that.

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