Synthetic Happiness TEDTalks 1

November 17, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 10:31 pm   Category: Happiness,Life

This talk by Dan Gilbert is one of my all-time favorite TEDTalks, I must have listened to it a half-dozen times. I can’t help but think of my mom who has as one of her principal catch phrases, “I like to keep my options open.”

There are several gems in there, but the central point revolves around the idea that humans synthesize happiness around whatever situation they find themselves in, despite the fact that we usually don’t get what we want. Surprisingly, studies show that what happens to us has far less impact on our happiness than we suppose. Gilbert argues that this “synthetic” happiness is just as real and just as valuable as “natural” happiness.

In a crushing indictment of my mom’s preference for options, Gilbert argues that although having choices is good for natural happiness (getting what we want), it is devastating for synthetic happiness (happiness created when we don’t get what we want). He describes a fascinating study in which one group was forced to make a permanent decision about what photograph they wanted to keep while another group made the same choice but had an option to change their minds. Apparently, having options open to us prevents us from synthesizing happiness. Synthesized happiness forms most easily around things we are stuck with.

Given that happiness is the object and design of our existence, its possible some of you will see religious implications. Personally I don’t see a lot of religious implications, but I do see practical implications. I wonder if this doesn’t help to explain why more money does not lead to more happiness (once you escape extreme poverty). I think this definitely makes a good case for the way we distribute callings in the church. Due to good luck my wife chooses counter tops, paint colors, carpets, and faucets quickly and never wants to reconsider. Like me, she likes to keep her options closed.


  1. Theological implications: When deciding your hair color upon resurrection — you’re stuck with it for the rest of eternity. :)

    Comment by A. Davis — November 15, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  2. Awesome video. It makes me think of marriage and divorce: those who choose once and commit to their spouse are happier than those who constantly question whether their decision was correct and compare their spouse against others.

    Comment by rp — November 16, 2009 @ 7:11 am

  3. Wonderful video Jacob. Thanks for sharing it with me. It makes a lot of people mad to think that happiness really is a choice though, “tell that to my depression!”

    Comment by Kent (MC) — November 16, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  4. There is depression, and then there is depression. The problem is that “depression” is a symptom of any number of things, and which thing it is sometimes almost impossible to determine.

    So one might place people who are just worn down with life, people who are under severe stress on an ongoing basis, people with chronic lack of sleep, people who have recently gone through some sort of trauma or catastrophe, people with chronic and severe pain, people with unknown genetic anomalies, and perhaps other exotic causes on some sort of severity continuum.

    For those near the milder side of the spectrum, a proper approach to life may cure them completely. Most relatively serious depression is temporary, and goes away with a change in circumstance. And due to what one might call “secondary depression” even those that have more permanent causes can be enormously assisted by such changes in approach.

    What is really annoying, however, is the common idea that all depression (it is just an emotion after all) is a self inflicted choice of mental attitude. This idea is *so* common among psychiatrists and many other doctors that I call it the “psychological fallacy”. It’s all in your head, right? Just think your way out of it. Medicine may be helpful, but just a crutch for the weak minded and those of low character.

    That is to say nothing of those members who think that anyone who is depressed or in any kind of despair must be in such a condition due to inquity. Can’t say that Moroni 10:22 helps that attitude, I am afraid to say. A causes B implies that A is the only cause of B? Or that eliminating A will completely eliminate B? I don’t think so.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 17, 2009 @ 12:01 am

  5. By the way, when I say “it is just an emotion after all”, I am being sarcastic. Severe depression is basically your brain shutting down. The initial symptoms are not emotion per se, but rather the lack of emotion. That is why depressives have a hard time enjoying anything – the physiological factors that generate normal emotions (not attitude, but emotions) are severely impaired.

    So in a normal person, emotions tend to follow attitude around. In depressives the mechanism for that doesn’t function very well. So you have people making heroic efforts to improve their attitude but their emotions do not come along for the ride, or at least not nearly to the degree that they should.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 17, 2009 @ 8:01 am

  6. Mark, I can tell that something in the post or video triggered your thoughts, but I can’t tell what it was. Can you tie it in for me?

    Comment by Jacob J — November 17, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  7. Great video Jacob. It does seem that this principle Gilbert is talking about is related to the “Men are that they might have Joy” concept so central to our religion. I can’t help but wonder if it all ties somewhere to the Section 19 principle we have discussed in the past too. That is, if synthetic happiness truly is as “real” as natural happiness then God knows that fact and it would therefore play into God’s decisions about intervention or not in the world (which brings us around to the Theodicy question).

    Comment by Geoff J — November 17, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  8. Can you tie it in for me?

    Probably this:

    It makes a lot of people mad to think that happiness really is a choice though, “tell that to my depression!”

    Comment by Peter LLC — November 18, 2009 @ 5:21 am

  9. I agree that a large part of happiness is a choice, just that the ability to do so varies with circumstance and isn’t absolute. In other words I maintain the relationship between attitude and emotion (and happiness is certainly an emotion) is not 1:1 in the general case.

    To take an extreme example, if someone is being tortured, he may very well be able to maintain a positive mental attitude about the whole thing, but that is not the same as *feeling* happy. If anything the physical pain will overwhelm the feeling (emotion) of happiness.

    In principle, control over mental attitude is absolute. That is what it means to have free will. The issue is what factors impair the link between attitude and emotion, the time delay involved (there most certainly is a time delay), prevalence in real life, and so on. The easiest way for me to understand the latter is to think of emotion as more explicitly physiological and neurological than mental attitude is, as in it takes longer for any kind of change (and especially a persistent change) to take effect.

    In terms of the mind vs. the body thing, the difference in ability to change one’s attitude vs. the the ability to change one’s emotions is extraordinarily remarkable. You can will whatever you want, or adopt any kind of attitude you want at a moments notice. But you cannot change what you *feel* at a moments notice, and in some circumstances it is very difficult to change what you feel to any significant degree at all.

    And yes, this is an issue I take an unusual level of interest in, due to some personal acquaintance myself, and observations in others.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 18, 2009 @ 6:22 am

  10. It might be worth mentioning that the message of that talk was certainly not “happiness is a choice”. Rather, I gathered from it that the point was that our brains have built in coping mechanisms that lead us to unconsciously arrive at happiness in spite of completely undesirable circumstances befalling us.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 18, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  11. Jacob,

    Cool post. I was especially interested in the following assertion you made:

    Due to good luck my wife chooses counter tops, paint colors, carpets, and faucets quickly and never wants to reconsider. Like me, she likes to keep her options closed.

    Rational Choice Theory says that people weigh risks and choose between alternatives based on their personal understanding of how things will benefit them (or will benefit those around them). In contrast to that, critics of Rational Choice Theory argue that people are inherently irrational because they operate mostly on emotion, superstition, and contradictory hueristics.

    For example, there is the famous experiment of a panel of women being shown two packages of brand new panty hose that are identical. They are not told before hand that the items are identical. They are asked to choose between them and to state the reason for their choice. About half the women choose Exhibit A and about half of them choose Exhibit B. The reasons underlying their selection are found to be highly idiosyncratic. Some are certain that there is a differnce in color, some feel certain there is a difference in texture or quality, and others think that the sizes are obviously different.

    And this leads to the third school of thought, “bounded rationality”, which holds that people are rational to the exact extent to which they admit that they are not perfectly rational. (Paradoxical, I know.)

    The problem we face in many situations is that we don’t have enough time, resources, or information to make truly “rational” choices. The constraints of mortality force us to make important choices with seriously imperfect data sets. Adding to that complexity is that our senses sometimes give us false positives or false negatives with regard to the already limited number of variables we are trying to isolate.

    The fact that you and your wife can make decisions that have lasting consequences with relative ease and assertiveness could mean that you both have a highly mature understanding of your own tastes and preferences. At the same time, it could also be that you occassionally use aggressive and contradictory hueristics in order to protect yourself from the harsh realization that your choices are not optimal or rational.

    One of the key elements in becoming “like a little child” is facing the frightening realization that most of our choices are not rational in the strict or pure sense. The realization that we are not entirely rational is highly offensive to most of us, and we shut it out of our minds almost immediately upon broaching it. As “natural enemies” to God, we generally don’t want His help and don’t want to admit that we are seriously blind and flawed and need His “constant companionship” to guide us.

    At the same time, it is equally important to act decisively and independently when certain variables are actually known and locked in. It is of course slothful servants who ask to be commanded in all things, and they will gain no reward.

    My primary point is that most people are not on an upward trajectory in this respect. They are milling around, floating around in eddies and whirlpools. They have never formally isolated their tastes and preferences, and this leads to mid-life crises, ignorant and destructive political opinions, costly career shifts, broken relationships, frequent buyer’s remorse, etc.

    “Happiness” is essentially defined by our adherence to our self-imposed moral code and self-created expectations for the future. To the exact extent that we honor that code and diligently work towards that future, we are happy.

    The tragic thing is that most people don’t know the finer details of their own moral code, because they have never done the hard work that it takes to isolate that information. They have no firm foundation upon which to work towards a definite and positive future. On the other side of the coin are those who have isolated their moral code but refuse to expand it when new light and knowledge is offered to them, and instead they hold pridefully to tradition, which damns their future.

    In this light, synthetic happiness is of two principle kinds:

    1. DESTRUCTIVE: Permanently lowering or freezing our moral code and expectations to avoid being accountable to new information.

    2. CREATIVE: Permanently adjusting our behavior in order to honor and maintain constant improvement and refinement of our moral code and expectations for the future.

    Both kinds of synthetic happiness will eventually yield real and permanent states of happiness: lesser or greater.

    My favorite work in this area is “As A Man Thinketh”, by James Allen.

    Conclusion: Exaltation is gained by leveraging and converting the creative form of synthetic happiness into real and permanent happiness.

    Comment by Prisoner #Unknown — November 18, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  12. I picked up his book “Stumbling on Happiness” from the library. I’ll let you know if it makes me happy.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — November 18, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  13. I read his book a while back and his main message seemed to be “humans are crap at predicting what will make them happy.” Now while a general outline on where we want to go in life is important it usually is a waste of time to get to upset when some of the details do not work out. He is not talking about depression but rather the moping around we tend to do when things don’t work out the way we planned. When we get bogged down in self-fulfilling prophecy we miss some real golden oportunities to be truly happy.

    For example, your spouse may have some social function you have no interest in attending but due to the tension in the marriage you reluctantly agree to go, but yet tell yourself “I don’t want to go, there is no way I will have any fun.” Consequently you are a miserable idiot the whole time and you and your spouse have a bad time. Rather you should look for happiness where-ever you happen to be and you will be pleasently surprised how many times you find it.

    As he says, people think winning the lottery will make them happy but study shows it does not. We are such crap at predicting what will make us happy we shouldn’t expend so much of our life energy in an absolute all or nothing attitutde trying to achieve those goals. For the most part we will totally miss the true happiness that is within our reach each and every day.

    The thought I came away with is “how many of my truly happiest moments in my life have been planned?” Very few.

    Comment by TStevens — November 18, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  14. Geoff (#7), good point, I hadn’t thought about the implications wrt God’s perspective on intervention. If it is really true that happiness is only loosely tied to what happens to us then it might mean we make bad generalizations when thinking about theodicy.

    (#10) Exactly.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 18, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

  15. rp (#2), great example, I think that’s right on.

    Peter (#8), thanks, that was the connection I was missing.

    Prisoner, thanks for the interesting comment. I think you’re correct that there is a lot of “milling around.” As to counter tops and carpet colors, I don’t think these fit very well into your DESTRUCTIVE and CREATIVE categories because they don’t have any real moral significance. It is just that certain ways of approaching these kinds of decisions will lead more easily to be ultimately happy with our decision.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 18, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  16. Kent, please do report back on the book when your done. I’ll be interested.

    TStevens, from your description, the book sounds pretty good. If we undermine our actual happiness because we are totally wrong in our predictions about what will make us happy, that does seem like a tractable problem, which means we could all get better at being happy. Cool.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 18, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  17. He gives the example about missing a train. We tend to get angry because we have predicted the only way we will be happy is if we had made it, thus we miss all the opportunities for happiness that could have been ours. So never run for a train.

    Think about how you met your spouse – well planned event or a delightful accident (I am assuming that the spousal relationship is happy).

    Comment by TStevens — November 18, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  18. It ought to be mentioned that the gospel principles apply – they may not cure all your problems, nor guarantee the type of cheer that stereotype dictates should result from righteous behavior. But of the things that can be done to increase your sense of happiness and peace, gratitude and hope founded in faith and inspiration have to rank very near the top.

    The other thing worth mentioning is the knowledge that you are conducting your life in a manner worthy of honor, respect, and divine approval, even if you have fallen far short of those standards in the past, and respect sometimes seems in short supply.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 18, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  19. Interesting post, Jacob.

    I really enjoyed Gilbert’s book. I like TStevens’s summary. One other point that stuck out to me was that, when making decisions, we tend to overestimate our own uniqueness and therefore undervalue the opinions of other people who have faced similar decisions. So this might seem obvious, but he suggests that if we’re facing a tough decision, we might profit from asking someone else who faced a similar one.

    Also, regarding closing off choices, I also read a wonderful little book by Barry Schwartz called “The Paradox of Choice.” Schwartz argues, as Prisoner #Unknown put it so well above, that in most circumstances, we don’t have the time or resources to make an optimal choices, so we end up being happier if we make a “good enough” or satisficing choice. Schwartz also hits the point about irreversible decisions making us happier than ones in which we try to hold our options open.

    I recommend both books. Both writers are very good at making their points in clear and interesting ways. Gilbert in particular also made me laugh out loud several times.

    Comment by Ziff — November 22, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  20. Thanks for the recommendations Ziff. Schwartz has a TEDTalk I may be using in a future installment of this series.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 22, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  21. I read Dan Gilbert’s book a few weeks ago and came to similar conclusions about what he was saying as were expressed in #13. Another major piece of advice he gives is that the most reliable way of predicting if we will be happy doing a certain thing is to ask other people who are currently doing the same thing if they are happy. He did not address the possibility that those people you talk to who are happy now may eventually reap unhappy consequences from their actions. But I have a theory about happiness which agrees with some of the points he makes in his book. My theory, which was formed through contemplation of personal experience, is that the pursuit of happiness itself is a major cause of unhappiness. There seems to be a triple whammy to it: 1) pursuing happiness often encourages us to focus on the aspects of our lives that are not happy, which magnifies any unhappiness in our minds (which is the only place happiness really exists), 2) the pursuit of happiness causes us to be too busy to take the time to enjoy the unanticipated happy moments when we stumble upon them, and 3) since we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy, when we get what we want we are usually in for a let-down. Perhaps this helps explain the results of Gilbert’s picture experiment.

    To make a very long story short, my personal experience with temporarily giving up the pursuit of happiness 11 years ago is as follows. Having focused on my personal pursuit of happiness for years, having gotten everything I wanted, and realizing that I was more miserable than ever, I decided that happiness was a pipedream and that I would ignore it and concentrate on living my life the way I believed was right, regardless of whether that made me happy. Six months later, I realized I was happier than I had ever been. Unfortunately, it seems to be hard for me to permanently stay off the pursuit-of-happiness treadmill, because having gotten a taste of happiness, I want more. However, my experience does back up Christ’s statement that by losing our life in the service of our fellow men we find it.

    I doubt Dan Gilbert could get a book published these days that tells people as blatantly as I just did to ignore happiness, but he did manage to get one published that subtly tells them to ignore happiness. However, he does say in the book that he expects no one will take the advice he offers.

    Comment by Bill B. — December 3, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  22. Bill B, that makes a lot of sense. I like your tie in to the paradox of losing your life in order to find it.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 3, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  23. Jacob, thanks for this post. I was most fascinated by his finding regarding commitment: when students were given the chance to change their minds regarding which photograph they chose, they ended up being less happy (though they predicted they would be more happy). I think the implications of this for marital commitment are particularly intriguing.

    Anyway, I tracked down the article that documents these findings and, since it took some work, I thought I’d post the title and abstract here:

    “Decisions and Revisions: The Affective Forecasting of Changeable Outcomes” by Daniel T. Gilbert and Jane E. J. Ebert

    Abstract: People prefer to make changeable decisions rather than unchangeable decisions because they do not realize that they may be more satisfied with the latter. Photography students believed that having the opportunity to change their minds about which prints to keep would not influence their liking of the prints. However, those who had the opportunity to change their minds liked their prints less than those who did not (Study 1). Although the opportunity to change their minds impaired the postdecisional processes that normally promote satisfaction (Study 2a), most participants wanted to have that opportunity (Study 2b). The results demonstrate that errors in affective forecasting can lead people to behave in ways that do not optimize their happiness and well-being.

    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 82(4), April 2002, p 503–514)

    Comment by Robert C. — December 27, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  24. I read the book “Stumbling on Happiness” and it did make me happy in some respects. I found many of the mental fallacies that humans succumb to be fascinating and I realized that I really do not want to get trapped by them; though I occasionally do. So this book doesn’t really contain very many practical recommendations besides “be aware of how your brain will trick you.” I really did enjoy the book and recommend it warmly.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — January 8, 2010 @ 12:11 pm