Synthetic Happiness

Posted: November 24th, 2008 under psychology, video.
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I watched this video by Dan Gilbert about happiness on Ted Talks. He challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want, and states that our psychological immune system lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned. Gilbert explains how the prefrontal cortex in our brain acts as an “experience simulator.” He states:

We have something called the ‘impact bias’ which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly–for the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are. But they have far less impact, intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have. A recent study that shows how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

Gilbert presents data showing that lottery winners and paraplegics were equally happy one year after winning the lottery and losing their legs, respectively. He suggests that in our society we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is somehow inferior to “natural” happiness, which is the type of happiness we stumble upon when we get what we want.

It was an interesting and thought-provoking talk. I see too many people chasing what they want, and never truly finding lasting happiness. I notice in my own life seemingly significant desires or events that turn out to be not nearly as important or meaningful as I had originally thought. I find that time spent with my best friend Brent and our girls, relationships, and creating opportunities to pursue my interests and passions trump anything else that may or may not happen. This power we have to synthesize happiness is truly a gift, and it certainly puts things into perspective.


  1. Awesome. Love the video. Love TED. Your remarks are insightful, intelligent and articulate.

    I see too many people chasing what they want, and never truly finding lasting happiness.

    Perhaps they need religion. Oh, they’ve already got one (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

    Comment by Brent Danley — November 24, 2008 @ 8:25 am

  2. I agree with you–though I didn’t watch the video (after finals, maybe?), but I am finding more and more the joy of the journey and of family and friends–and CHALLENGES that make me stretch and work and pull my hair out. Stuff makes me cranky and my goal for next year is clear out as much as I can! I wish you were here to give me great advice on how to make those tough decisions!

    Comment by Jodi Clayton — November 26, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  3. Thanks for posting this video. I haven’t watched any of the TED videos for a while.

    Jen and I watched this together and she said that a lot of what Gilbert said is familiar from her studies of Positive Psychology (we noticed also that PP “Father” Martin Seligman has a video on TED)

    Comment by Steven Pam — November 30, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  4. Thanks Brent.

    Jodi, you’re getting so close graduation! Hopefully you’ll have some hair left at the end of December. ;-)

    Steven, glad you enjoyed it. I love watching those TED videos.

    Comment by Kirsten Danley — November 30, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

  5. Take a trip with me to Tanzania and you can see what happiness is all about. As stated above, family and friends are happiness. The Tanzanians I have met are happier than any of my friends in the US and don’t own squat. I made three trips to Goodwill with my pick up full of crap after our first trip there. Ask our friend Dr. Frank whom we support and raise moeny to support what happiness is. He gave up a house in San Fran, a ranch in Montana, a Condo in Palm Springs and a condo in Colorado, sold his Cobra and two Audo convertibles to set up his foundation to be a doctor in Africa. He says he never knew what happiness was until he saw the love in the eyes of those he was helping. – go read about him. Watch the video shot by a California film crew if it is still available online.

    Comment by Jim Griggs — June 2, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  6. @Jim – I’m not surprised at the happiness of the Tanzanians. It seems that most people don’t really know what makes them happy. And the more material goods people accumulate and the more luxuries they have, the higher their desires and expectations.

    Comment by Kirsten Uhler — June 4, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

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