Manufactured Happiness

So, there I am, Sunday morning, innocently riding along in the car, letting my hubby whisk me away to Massachusetts to see the Alex Ross exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum, when I happen across “TED talks” on Sirius XM.

The featured speaker was Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” who was discussing manufactured (or synthesized, if you will) happiness (as opposed to authentic happiness.)

Let me nutshell it for you.

Authentic Happiness is “Real” happiness – what you feel when:

  • You win the lottery with the numbers you picked.
  • Get the job you applied for.
  • Get cast in the role you auditioned for.
  • Get asked out by the boy/girl you like.

Manufactured Happiness is “consolation” happiness – what you feel when:

  • You lose the lottery but convince yourself you have it pretty good anyway and don’t really need any of those things you were going to buy with your winnings.
  • You don’t get the job, but realize there are a lot of great things about the job you already have and are grateful for the perks you won’t lose going to the new job.
  • You don’t get the role you auditioned for but realize you have all this free time to do with as you please that you would otherwise have had to devote to rehearsals.
  • You don’t get asked out by the boy/girl you like, but now you don’t have to shave your legs or go to the gym since you’re still single.

I think you get the picture.  Authentic happiness is what we naturally feel when we achieve the results and outcomes we try for and want.  Manufactured happiness is what we convince ourselves to feel when we don’t get what we want or tried for, persuading ourselves that it isn’t so bad and, in fact, we’re just as happy for it. It’s the human brain’s way of coping with loss, hurt and disappointment. We want to be in a state of happiness, so when we don’t get what we want to be happy, we make ourselves happy with what we have or doing without.

This is not a totally foreign concept to me, although it’s the first time I’ve heard it called “manufactured happiness.”   After all, aren’t people always rationalizing and placating and convincing themselves (or trying to) to be happy with what they have as a matter of course, to some degree or another?  Sure, you have your doom and gloom nay-sayers in every bunch, but I think, generally speaking, we are, most of us, not wallowing in that sense of “things suck and will never get better” attitude. It’s not healthy. It’s not productive. It’s not practical. We lose people we love, and find a way to move on.  We survive heartbreak, betrayal, health crises, disappointments and set-backs.  Many of us have done without in many areas: food, shelter, clothing, health, relative safety, education, success (?), wealth, medical care, support and relationships….and still found a way to cope, get through it, survive, move on and sometimes, even thrive. Personally, I have struggled all of my life with trying to stay positive and be happy with what I have and who I am.  I have had a lot of disappointment in my life, career, health and relationships. But I have had many successes, too, and I know I have been both genuinely happy with the positive outcomes and fruits of my labor and efforts, and manufactured my own happiness when the path I wound up on was not the one I intended to take.

But there are differing opinions on the value of manufactured happiness.  Some people believe it is a good thing: the human ability to adapt to our circumstances and find satisfaction in what we have and where we are in life; others think it’s a false sense of satisfaction and discourages us from striving to achieve more and better by using self-delusion to convince ourselves we are happy “as is.” In effect, it removes our motivation for improvement.

It is no surprise that everyone doesn’t agree on its value or if it does more harm than good. We are constantly being bombarded with conflicting messages in our society:  be grateful for what you have but strive to have and do more; accept and love yourself but strive to be a better person and improve yourself; appreciate the opportunities and experiences you’ve had, but seek out new ones; love your body as is but lose weight and get in shape; there’s no place like home, but get out and see the world; move on, but never forget. You get the picture.

I understand both arguments, and I don’t think either is 100% right or wrong.  I believe we need to find a balance between being content with our life but also finding motivation to improve it when and where as we see fit. I think we can do both simultaneously: strive to improve while being content with where we’re at.

For example, I am currently trying to convince myself that my job is not as miserable as it seems right now, and things could be worse, so I don’t come to work every day with a sour puss and a heavy heart and leave every day filled with bile and disgust; but I also look for a new job every day, apply for other positions, take training to improve my skills, investigate increasing my education, etc.  Rather than do one or the other, I am doing both: trying to manufacture happiness where I am, and seek out authentic happiness by looking for opportunities to change my current situation. We can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to them, and I don’t mind manufacturing my happiness and seeing the glass as half full until something that might make me authentically happy comes along. And if it never does, hopefully I’ll have successfully found a true level of contentedness here in the meantime. Maybe I’ll find authentic happiness through successfully achieving manufactured happiness.

Wouldn’t that be a kick in the rubber parts?  Life is short, people – try to live it well.

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8 Responses to Manufactured Happiness

  1. Shawn says:

    I’m in the “We create our own reality” group.
    What I see in the two examples is that it seems the definition given is that authentic happiness is spontaneous from external forces. While it is saying (from the expample) that something created from within is manufactured and…. not real.
    This is where I have to agree with you that neither is 100%. Because I feel we create our realities, I lean toward happiness that we create in ourselves to be “authentic” and happiness that is spontaneous from an external force to be just that….spontaneous and only temporary (although it is truly an “authentic feeling”).
    I find I am happiest in things I work for and achieve myself. I feel winning the lottery, while the immediate feeling would be happiness, would not create actual true inner happiness….just solve some temporary money issues and buy me things that are external and would not necessarily bring life fulfillment.
    Therefore I am happiest when I manufacture happiness (by the definition from the radio show) because I make it myself and no one can take that away from me. So I consider manufactured happiness…..authentic.
    Thank you….great posts!

  2. I wonder how manufactured happiness reflects the start of depression cycles? Which seems kind of contrary, but I bet they go hand in hand.

  3. Urspo says:

    I have a whole different concept on happiness, the which would fill a blog entry or a minor novella.

  4. Gary Eaton says:

    That was one of your better blogs post…I have to agree with’s called dealing with the reality that we create…Kudos to you kid…we just have this one life…and we get through it as best we can. I have a wonderful Husband, Two adorable dogs. and I was lucky enough to find something that I can make money at doing what I can to make people feel and look better and fulfill my artistic side…Nuff said. except Cutting childrens hair..I hate that …hahaha

  5. D@vid says:

    I gave up a long time ago thinking that I’d ever find happiness… although I never really knew what it meant, or meant to me. I tend to set my expectations lower to overcompensate for disappointment and I can honestly say that, compared to times when I was younger and wanted all these materialistic things or hit self-imposed goals that had no bearing on anything just to achieve them, it has only been in the last couple years that I stopped trying to accomplish so much that I truly became happy. Accepting my plight and my circumstances allowed me to come to rest in my mind and truly enjoy the things that actually do make me happy… whatever they are(still to be determined, for the most part). I am more content now than ever and it’s put me in a good place to accept life’s ups and downs and survive. If something marvelous happens, it will be all the more ‘authentic’, and I’ll appreciate it more.

  6. Tony D says:

    i like your approach–two sided. in my opinion, the only time that manufactured happiness would be bad is if it “masks” authentic feelings of sadness, grief, disappointment, etc., that could be valuable as motivation for change. i do feel that there is WAY too much emphasis on always “being positive”, to the extent that nobody is allowed to be sad anymore. there are valid reasons for unpleasant emotions–i am not talking about depression. if i decide to authentically make the best of a bad situation while still working to change it, then i have the best of both worlds. manufactured happiness alone would delude me into staying where i don’t want to be. i had to look at this recently when i decided to stay in los angeles, i did “manufacture” some reasons to be glad about it, but i was also authentically happy with my decision–because i felt it in my body.

    btw, dan’s book is great–he explains how poorly we all predict our future happiness, and if i had not read the book, there is a possibility that i would have moved out of los angeles without really thinking about the difficulties it would have presented. i have learned that the best way to get through life is to understand how our brains work well, and how they don’t work well. dan’s book helps with this understanding. and i am not paid to say that!

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