Natural vs Synthetic Happiness

Contributor: Morgan McCaul

Due to a series of unfortunate events earlier this spring, I was forced to voraciously watch TED Talks on March 17, 2020. It was a particularly painful process for me, as I harbor dread for the kinds of ‘constant optimization’ narratives and undertones that serve as the hallmark of TEDx. A bald, wrinkly, wire-rimmed man with his hands outstretched in earnest. A fuzzy skeleton projects upon a plane behind him, carving space out of what is mostly darkness. The talk was called The surprising science of happiness and was presented by Dan Gilbert, who looked more likely to bear grave news than good in the thumbnail image.

 Gilbert describes two forms of happiness: natural happiness and synthetic happiness. To borrow his words, “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.” This capacity to create, or in his words “synthesize,” happiness is a privilege of humankind’s hyper-developed prefrontal cortexes. 

He makes the claim that humans demonstrate impact bias; this phenomenon is that, more often than not, humans will project a negative outcome to a hypothetical scenario. Taking his argument into a political realm, Gilbert points out that a capitalist market depends on the promise of natural happiness and is undermined when its subjects reach contentment––or even happiness––with their existing circumstances. He captures the American tendency to hold synthetic happiness as inferior to its counterpart, with help from the likes of Jim Wright (disgraced politician), Moreese Bickham (wrongly incarcerated for 37 years), and Pete Best (the Beatle that never was). According to Gilbert, “With all apologies to [his] friend Matthieu Ricard, a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable, because they don’t want stuff enough.”

Gilbert concludes his speech with the following: 

The lesson I want to leave you with, from these data, is that 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. 

I interrogate my priorities and attempt to maintain my mental wellbeing on a very much regular basis. The closures, stay-at-home directives, and the corresponding impact upon the commercial market have eliminated a significant number of options for folks like me. There is no longer a decision to be made about what coffee will satisfy my caffeine cravings. There is no longer the debate to be made for going out on a Friday night or staying in. This new normal––which I have been using as an opportunity to reflect upon and simplify my daily life––has carved stark contrasts between the commodities I once sought regularly (coffee commissioned by a professional, for example) and the care I give to the folks around me, near and far. I am manufacturing synthetic happiness out of necessity to remain calm, productive, and maintain my community at this time. In the face of existential threat and under the weight of new, all-consuming uncertainties, this breed of happiness is a means for survival.

Morgan McCaul is a junior at the University of Michigan and advocate for twenty-first century sexual violence prevention, with a focus in technology as the catalyst for cultural change. She is the founder and director of The #YouArePower Project, is experienced in nonprofit administration, and serves as a collegiate consultant for MySideKick powered by EveryTwoMinutes. She has a penchant for strong coffee, modern art, and archeological field work