I watched a TED Talk last week called “The Surprising Science of Happiness” by Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist and writer. In twenty minutes, he discusses how the prefrontal cortex of the human mind is an amazing experience simulator and works to imagine certain scenarios during the decision making process. He also discusses the difference between natural happiness and synthetic happiness. This is the part that I found most fascinating.
Natural happiness occurs when we get something that we wanted. For example, you planned to buy a new car, and you got the exact make and model you imagined. Synthetic happiness is what you make when you didn’t get what you wanted. For example, you bought a car, not your first choice, but you adjust to it and end up liking it – you make your own happiness even though the situation wasn’t exactly what you wanted originally. In his presentation, Gilbert argues that these types of happiness are equivalent.
I found this talk very insightful. Being complete honest, I feel like I have a natural tendency to view synthetic happiness as inferior because you have to make it yourself – it doesn’t occur naturally.
However, his point really got me thinking about human tendencies and happiness.
There is something called the hedonistic treadmill (or hedonic adaptation) which describes the human tendency of reaching a steady level of happiness in response to a positive or
negative stimulus. A common example of this is increasing income – as someone makes more money, they adjust to that amount and want another raise before long. Another example is the inhumane “boiling frog” anecdote which explains that a frog thrown into a pot of boiling water will immediately jump out, but if it is placed in cool water and the temperature is slowly increased, it will not notice.
Humans have a natural tendency to adapt to their environment and their situation. Over time, we learn to appreciate the major decisions we make in our lives. So if humans adapt so easily, then why do we, as a society, stress the importance of decision making and making the optimal decision? And why is there so much discussion about regret and remorse?
In his talk, Gilbert explained that there is a societal tendency to value natural happiness over synthetic happiness – but, according to him, they are the same. However, this is a very complex question that I am personally ill-equipped to answer.
On the discussion of decision-making, I recalled the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. This is a very popular poem, but I believe most people interpret it incorrectly. I would recommend looking up the poem and reading it, but I will kindly provide my own understanding.
In this poem, the narrator approaches a fork in the road and is deliberating which path to take. In his decision-making process, he states both paths look exactly the same. So then how did he choose? The most popular line of this poem is “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” However, how did he know which one was less traveled if the paths were identical? How does he know if he is happy with his choice?
In my interpretation, these last two lines reinforce the idea of synthetic happiness. Perhaps the narrator is happy with his decision because he doesn’t know what was down the other path. Perhaps he hedonically adapted to his new surroundings and was able to adjust to his new happiness levels. Or perhaps he just wanted to have a good story to share at the end of his journey.
I don’t know if Dan Gilbert ever related his work to the hedonic treadmill or Robert Frost, but thinking about happiness in terms of decision-making and adaptation is a very interesting area of psychology.
The human mind is powerful enough to want us be happy in any situation. And I find that beautiful.
To access Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy
Kelsey Fieseler | Mechanical Engineering
is a first-year Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering from Sugar Land, Texas.