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Happiness Science: Synthetic Happiness vs. Natural Happiness

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

While I certainly wish that happiness science was a subject they taught in school, it is something we tend to have to learn all on our own. If you are reading this, you are likely looking for ways to improve your happiness. Today, I am sharing with you the science of happiness, synthetic vs. natural, and how you can create a happier life for yourself in a straightforward manner.

Happiness Science: Synthetic Happiness Vs. Natural Happiness

Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want or work for. It’s like winning the lottery, getting a perfect parking spot, winning the race, and receiving a promotion - when we get what we want, we get a jolt of happiness.

Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want. It is basically the glass ½ full analogy where you redefine the situation to turn the results in your favor. So, you didn’t get the job you wanted, but because you didn’t take it, another job came by after that made you very happy. Had you taken that first job that you wanted, you wouldn’t have often gotten this one.

Examples of Synthetic Happiness

Harvard professor and scientist Dan Gilbert gave a TED Talk in 2004 where he explained “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” In his talk, he shares stories of people who had terrible experiences but said they were happier for them. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

After a scandal forced him to resign in disgrace as Speaker of the House, former Congressman Jim Wright was quoted saying: “I am so much better off, physically, financially, mentally, and in almost every way.” Another example is Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. Had the rest of the band not dropped him for Ringo Starr, he believed his life would have been worse. He said, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” You hear that, and many of us think that it’s crazy, but humans have a remarkable ability to alter their views to make themselves feel better about the world they find themselves in.

Sir Thomas Brown wrote in 1642, “I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.”

Powerful, isn’t it? However, you may think, “Katie, these are incredible people, big names in history.” So, what if we looked at our own lives? One example is how we do this all of the time with the stock market. We see our stocks rise 7%, and we’re happy. That would be natural happiness. Then, at some point, if you’ve been in this game long enough, you see your portfolio drop, maybe even 10%. You will likely think, “that sucks, but at least it wasn’t 20%.”

We, humans, try to find the silver lining. Some of us are better than others. Some of us get there quicker than others. No matter what, though, we all have the capacity to see the silver lining due to those big ole’ brains in our heads. They allow us to see the glass as ½ full, and frequently, we don't even realize we are doing it.

How I Created Synthetic Happiness

As an adolescent, I didn’t feel like I belonged. I grew up in a small town in MN, 2006 people in the middle of a cornfield. I felt like I had no way out. As humans, we yearn to BELONG. It is scientifically in our DNA. The emotional trauma of not feeling like you had good friends or people that really understand you can be devastating. Unbeknownst to me at the time, what I did was manufacture synthetic happiness. I did that by dreaming big about the world beyond the scope of my small town. My way out of a place I didn’t feel like I fit in was law school. I thought that if I made enough money, I would have more choices. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, and I did achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer - but I had this tug on me; there was something else.

As Dr. Daniel Gilbert puts it, “...we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience” over materiality. That commodity is happiness, and with practice, he says, we can find more happiness through choice than we ever will through selfish pursuits and material acquisition.

I found out that being a lawyer didn’t make me happy. So while it was a means to an end, to a chapter of life closed, I stopped. I mean, now, I’m here, with you, talking about happiness, which completely lights my hair on fire. Therefore, if happiness is not a thing, but a state of mind, then we can create synthetic happiness. Now, I am not talking about toxic positivity, which is a whole different thing and one we don’t have time for today. What I am saying is that happiness science indicates that we have the ability to synthesize happiness - we don’t have to wait for happiness to happen to us, and we don’t have to chase it or find it like some magical rainbow where we have to shake down some poor leprechaun. Instead, you can create it yourself.

How Can I Create My Own Synthetic Happiness

While natural happiness is excellent, it doesn’t always happen. That’s okay. The power is within us to create happiness. We can manufacture the very thing we are chasing. So, how do we do that? The main factor is allowing yourself to recreate a negative situation (or what you think is a negative situation) into something beneficial.

- So you didn’t win the race, but getting second pushes you harder to work for 1st.

- So you couldn’t afford the fancy restaurant, but you had a blast with your spouse by doing a picnic.

- So you didn’t get a promotion, now you have more time to spend with your kids.

Allow yourself to spin the situation, to hedonically adapt to the case, and remember that unhappiness is always temporary.

Can I Buy Synthetic Happiness?

We all remember the studies about whether or not money buys happiness. In summary, as long as your basic needs are met, excess money doesn’t create greater satisfaction. So what should you do?

First, spend money on experiences over material things. Rather than buying another pair of shoes, an item for your collections, or a random décor item, spend that money on an adventure. It could be as big as going on vacation, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be taking the kids for ice cream, going bowling, taking your spouse on a fun date, taking an overnight mini trip with your bestie, or literally anything else that gets you out and building memories.

Second, spend money on the future. Studies have shown that investing in long-term happiness is one of the best actions you can take now, lasting into your 70s, 80s, and longer. Seven categories make up long-term happiness: not smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy body weight, consistently exercising, improving emotional resilience, continuing education (i.e., lifelong learning), and building relationships. Investing now could look like this:

- Attending exercise classes

- Hiring a personal trainer

- Taking healthy cooking courses

- Taking a class on an engaging subject you enjoy

- Seeing a therapist

- Making occasions to see loved ones

Again, you are looking at experiences!

Lastly, if you do want to spend money on stuff, spend it on others over yourself. Spending money on loved ones or for charities you feel strongly about helps build long-term relationships with your inner circle and your community.

The Science of Happiness Take Away

I want to leave you with one message at the end of all this. You are in charge of your happiness, and you have the power to adjust it all on your own.

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