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.