Why are some people happier than others? Is it a matter of luck? Are some of us really just more blessed than our peers? Or, are some of us happier because we’re somehow better at achieving our goals? How can one person be so willing to surrender their happiness to something as inconsequential as a chance of rain on their birthday, while another can lose their job or their spouse or their life savings and still possess a deeply-rooted, unshakable sense of optimism about the future?
Because, as author and Harvard Psychology professor Dan Gilbert says in his TED Talk “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” there are two different and distinct types of happiness: natural happiness (the kind that arises organically as a result of getting exactly what we want) and synthesized happiness (the kind that we manufacture, either consciously or not, when things don’t go quite according to plan).
Synthetic happiness is tied to what Gilbert refers to as our Psychological Immune system— the part of our brains that help us change our views of the world so we can feel better about the world in which we find ourselves. Your favorite Mexican restaurant is closed? That’s okay— you were really more in the mood for Italian anyway. You got stood up on a first date— not a problem. You weren’t really sure the guy was your type to begin with. You lost your job? It’s all for the best— it wasn’t your passion and losing it was just the kick in the pants you needed to pursue your real calling.
As Abraham Lincoln once said: “People are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And yet, for many of us today, this kind of “self-constructed” happiness often feels like a cop out. Like if we’re not getting exactly what we think we want, somehow the happiness is less legitimate. That it is more an act of denial than a practice in gratitude.
But here’s where things get interesting: When it comes to happiness, Gilbert says, our brains can’t actually tell the difference between natural happiness (getting what we want) and synthetic happiness (making lemonade out of lemons).
Which might actually mean that as far as happiness is concerned, we humans have the unique capacity to manufacture the very commodity we’re all so desperately chasing.
It just happens that some of us are better at it than others.
So how, then, do we cultivate this skill? This ability to see our own happiness as an arc, a trajectory, a direction rather than a destination? As Roman philosopher Seneca said:
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
Or to put it more succinctly, perhaps, in the the words of W.P. Kinsella, Canadian novelist and author of Shoeless Joe, the book that became the basis for the 1989 movie Field of Dreams: “Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get.”