TED Talk of the week: Dan Gilbert on ‘synthetic happiness’

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“Would you rather win the lottery or become a paraplegic?”

That’s the question that Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert opens with on his TED Talk, and as it turns out, it may not matter for your happiness: After one year, both paraplegics and lottery winners were equally happy. Strange, huh? Gilbert thought so too, so he coined the term “synthetic happiness” to describe the phenomenon (watch the video here). He defines the term as a “psychological immune system” that humans have developed to feel better about the world we inhabit. So whether you as a student rocked those finals or bombed them, graduated summa cum laude or somewhere kind of low, you might be just as happy in either case. What’s more, Gilbert has compelling evidence to suggest that synthetic happiness is just as real as natural happiness. If you don’t have 20 spare minutes to watch the actual video, here are some CliffsNotes takeaways from his talk:

Freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness. In a Harvard photography course, a sample of students were given the choice to keep one of the two pictures that they developed; half of these students were given the chance to reverse their choice, while the other half was given only one chance. As it turns out, the students with a reversible choice were much less satisfied than students that had to make a single decision. Simply put, our psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck.

Happiness is synthesized, but we think it can be found. As a Cal student, it’s likely that you’re a veteran of chasing some ambitious goals. Admittance to an exceptional university? Yup. All A’s? Done that. But are those the keys to eternal happiness? It’d be foolish to think so. Although most of us believe that the external environment dictates happiness, Gilbert has evidence to the contrary. He asserts that a boundless ambition will cause us to sacrifice our values, while a healthy ambition will allow us to work joyfully.

Synthetic happiness is just as real as natural happiness. To prove this, Gilbert worked with amnesia patients. They were asked to rank their favorite paintings, one through six, and given a choice to keep one of the middle-ranked paintings (usually a choice between three or four). When Gilbert and his team returned to the patients (who had forgotten the initial interaction by this time), they invariably ranked the painting that they chose higher. Even though they couldn’t remember keeping it, their happiness with the painting that they were forced to choose increased. Thus, the amnesiacs were genuinely satisfied with that decision, despite the fact that it wasn’t their top choice.

These are just a few things we got out of his talk. Did anything stand out to you about his views on happiness? How do you find or create happiness as a student? Let us know in the comments!

Image source: firexbrat under Creative Commons

Contact Griffin Mori-Tornheim at [email protected]