What makes people happy? I can list a lot of things that make me happy: the ocean, kitesurfing, potluck dinners with my friends, coffee, puppies,… I’m sure you can easily list a few things that make you happy.
What I find interesting is that the same things that make me happy, do the opposite to other people. There are many people who are afraid of the ocean, people that would rather go to a big loud party than have a ‘boring’ dinner at home, lots of people don’t like coffee (including my own sister which sometimes makes me question if we’re actually related. We look like twins so we probably are…), apparently there are even people who don’t like puppies! Hard to believe, I know.
But jokes aside, it seems that we all have a very different definition of happiness and maybe we’re a bit too quick to judge other people’s happiness sometimes because we automatically apply our idea of happiness to their lives.
My friends and I love going to the Far North of New Zealand for long weekends to surf and kitesurf. It’s one of the most beautiful and rawest parts of NZ (maybe even the world) and we always have an amazing time. However, it’s also one of the poorest parts of the country. Many of the locals struggle to get by. Their lives revolve around a very small ‘world’. Many of them have never really left the area and don’t have any hope (or ambition) to do so.
In many ways, it reminds me of how lucky I am, how privileged. It’s hard to look at these people and their lives and not feel sorry for them. I have to admit that I automatically assume they are not as happy with their life as I am with mine. But is that true? Or are they maybe just as happy as I am? They do live in an amazing part of the country. Their lives are probably a lot more focused on what really matters (family, the land, neighbours, …).
So are they maybe just as happy as we are? Do they maybe look at us and think we’ve got it all wrong because we let materialistic things rule our life?
I came across this fascinating TED Talk by Dan Gilbert the other day titled 'The Surprising Science of Happiness'. I was browsing the internet looking for ‘what makes people happy’ and ‘how to find true happiness’. The title of this TED talk stood out right away because of the word ‘Scientific’. I’m a super rational person so a scientific explanation of happiness is definitely up my alley.
I highly recommend watching it but I’m gonna summarise some of the highlights for you. Among other things, Dan gives examples of some fascinating research around happiness. For example, one study looked at the happiness levels of people who won the lottery and people who became paraplegic. It compared the level of happiness of these two groups a year after the event (lottery win / becoming paraplegic) happened. And, believe it or not, the study shows that both groups are EQUALLY happy. Seems crazy, right?
Well, Dan Gilberts argues we have something he calls the "psychological immune system" – a system that helps us change our perspective on something so that we feel better about our lives and what we have. Something he refers to as ‘synthetic happiness’.
The problem is, too many of us are not aware of it and/or don’t really know how to leverage it. Instead, we associate happiness with something we have to find, something that’s dependant on us getting or achieving certain things.
Why? Well, firstly because we seem to make things better/worth in our head than they will be in reality – we overestimate the positive effect of getting what we want and the negative impact of not getting what we want. And secondly, because we don’t actually believe that you can be just as happy NOT getting what you want. We all know someone or have read about someone who, in our own limited view, should not be happy. Yet they say they are. Do we believe them? Not really, right? We kind of think they just say so to ‘safe face’. Well, watch Dan Gilberts TED talk for some really fascinating studies that show this ‘synthetic happiness’ is a real thing.
You can, in fact, synthetize happiness – we all have the built-in ability to just be happy with what we have instead of making happiness something that’s dependent on certain things going our way. How cool is that?
But what is synthetic happiness’s biggest enemy? Choice!
Apparently, we are a lot happier with our lives if we don’t feel like we have any other choice (Dan has a great example of this – watch the video).
Of course, that explains why so many of us struggle with this thing he calls ‘synthetic happiness’. We live in a world where we have more choices than ever before. Hardly anything is permanent anymore. We can change the way we look, our jobs, where we live, our partners,… Things that used to be forever just a few generations ago are not anymore. Our grandparents used to get married ONCE, pic a profession ONCE, often lived in the same area their entire lives, and choose their clothes from the limited offering of the local department store.
Today, getting divorced and re-married is ‘normal’, thanks to the internet we have more clothing options than any one person could look at in one day, we can change jobs and even careers, we fly around the world in the same careless fashion in which our grandparents would go to the store two towns over…
So if a key to happiness is feeling like we don’t have any other choice it makes sense we struggle to feel happy. And it also explains why you hear about studies that show people who live in slums in third world counties are just as happy as we are – they don’t think they have another choice in life.
It’s kind of sad to think that all these opportunities and choices that should make our lives so much richer might be what’s getting in the way of feeling truly happy.
I don’t know about you, but to me this is definitely something worth thinking about and maybe keeping in mind next time we’re faced with a choice or a big decision – like for example the one of ‘what I want to do with the rest of my life?’.
To me it all kind of comes back to something I’ve talked about before; it’s not really about what you do with your life but about how you go about it. I mean, if people who are paraplegic can be just as happy as those who won the lottery than what excuse do I have not to be happy? None!
It’s kind of comforting to know that, no matter what, I can live a very happy life. I just need to put myself in the right mind-set.