(Synthetic) Happiness and the Difference Between a Challenge and a Threatby David Zahl on Jan 11, 2012 • 3:07 pm 2 Comments
In 2006, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness was published, and it’s since become something of a pop landmark for the burgeoning social-/neuroscience field of “Happiness Research.” The Harvard Business Review recently caught up with Gilbert and he shared a few recent insights that I found interesting. For example, frequency is more important than intensity when it comes to positive experiences. And the distinction between synthetic and natural happiness, which was also new to me, might have some serious theological potential. Gilbert’s findings also serve as an encouragement, perhaps, for folks that find themselves in less than ideal church situations, that while they wait for things to pick up, Gospel-wise, there might be some non-spiritual value there as well. Then again, there might not. As is always the case with such interviews, when it veers into “how-to’s” things get a little dodgy, but as far as the descriptions are concerned, my ears are open.
WHAT DID ALL THESE HAPPINESS RESEARCHERS DISCOVER?
Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people. People who participate in their churches are happier than those who don’t. Rich people are happier than poor people. And so on.
That said, there have been some surprises. For example, while all these things do make people happier, it’s astonishing how little any one of them matters. Yes, a new house or a new spouse will make you happier, but not much and not for long. As it turns out, people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy and how long that happiness will last. They expect positive events to make them much happier than those events actually do, and they expect negative events to make them unhappier than they actually do.
AREN’T THEY DELUDING THEMSELVES? ISN’T REAL HAPPINESS BETTER THAN SYNTHETIC HAPPINESS?
Let’s be careful with terms. Nylon is real; it’s just not natural. Synthetic happiness is perfectly real; it’s just man-made. Synthetic happiness is what we produce when we don’t get what we want, and natural happiness is what we experience when we do. They have different origins, but they are not necessarily different in terms of how they feel. One is not obviously better than the other.
Of course, most folks don’t see it that way. Most folks think that synthetic happiness isn’t as “good” as the other kind—that people who produce it are just fooling themselves and aren’t really happy. I know of no evidence demonstrating that that’s the case. If you go blind or lose a fortune, you’ll find that there’s a whole new life on the other side of those events. And you’ll find many things about that new life that are quite good. In fact, you’ll undoubtedly find a few things that are even better than what you had before. You’re not lying to yourself; you’re not delusional. You’re discovering things you didn’t know—couldn’t know until you were in that new life. You are looking for things that make your new life better, you are finding them, and they are making you happy. What is most striking to me as a scientist is that most of us don’t realize how good we’re going to be at finding these things. We’d never say, “Oh, of course, if I lost my money or my wife left me, I’d find a way to be just as happy as I am now.” We’d never say it—but it’s true.
MANY MANAGERS WOULD SAY THAT CONTENTED PEOPLE AREN’T THE MOST PRODUCTIVE EMPLOYEES, SO YOU WANT TO KEEP PEOPLE A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE, MAYBE A LITTLE ANXIOUS, ABOUT THEIR JOBS.
Managers who collect data instead of relying on intuition don’t say that. I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive. Remember, contentment doesn’t mean sitting and staring at the wall. That’s what people do when they’re bored, and people hate be- ing bored. We know that people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach. Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened. Sure, you can get results from threats: Tell someone, “If you don’t get this to me by Friday, you’re fired,” and you’ll probably have it by Friday. But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more than he must. It would be much more effective to tell your employee, “I don’t think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the entire team.” Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.
In a religious context, the word “challenge” normally throws up red flags as a synonym for Law, masking a behavioral agenda or if-then scenario, etc. But the way Gilbert is using it here is almost in the sense of imputing ability and confidence to someone who might not otherwise have it. Certainly the notion that, in the long run, positive reinforcement trumps its negative counterpart is a sympathetic finding.
BEYOND HAVING RICH NETWORKS, WHAT MAKES US HAPPY DAY TO DAY?
The psychologist Ed Diener has a finding I really like. He essentially shows that the frequency of your positive experiences is a much better predictor of your happiness than is the intensity of your positive experiences. When we think about what would make us happy, we tend to think of intense events—going on a date with a movie star, winning a Pulitzer, buying a yacht. But Diener and his colleagues have shown that how good your experiences are doesn’t matter nearly as much as how many good experiences you have. Somebody who has a dozen mildly nice things happen each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen. So wear comfortable shoes, give your wife a big kiss, sneak a french fry. It sounds like small stuff, and it is. But the small stuff matters.
I think this helps explain why it’s so hard for us to forecast our affective states. We imagine that one or two big things will have a profound effect. But it looks like happiness is the sum of hundreds of small things.
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