Artificial Happiness and the Power of No Choice

Miners-by-jurvetsonWe have a tendency to overestimate the impact that events will have in our life.

Ask anyone whether they would be happier winning millions or losing a leg and you get the expected answer. Yet, Dan Gilbert’s research shows the peaks and troughs of both happiness and sadness flatten out after around three months.

If we win millions, a few months later we’ll be back to the same emotional place. Our surroundings may have been upgraded, but our emotions return to normal. This inability to create inner happiness just from outer changes is also evidenced in the Fallacy of Consumerism and Why Money Can’t Buy You Love!

Even when bad things happen, life returns to normal as we ‘just get on with things’. It is as though we have a psychological immune system.

There is a big impact, whether it be positive or a sucker punch, but the impact soon fades as we return to our predestined level of contentment.

For some, returning back to normal may not be such a good thing. It is OK for those with a normally high level of happiness, but it is clearly a bummer for those who lack happy juice and have low happiness levels.

Equally, Gilbert’s synthetic happiness research shows that we overestimate how a crisis like losing a leg would ruin our life.

The Deception of Freedom

Society is built around an enormous lie.

We’ve all been raised to believe freedom of choice delivers happiness. Freedom has a magic appeal. It sounds so logical and correct. It resonates with power. We applaud freedom fighters whether they be fighting on a battlefield or overcoming personal issues in their own suburban lives.

Unfortunately, the expected rewards of freedom often prove elusive. The proposition that freedom equals happiness is simply just not true.  Gilbert’s research has shown that our expectations of freedom’s benefits are remarkably inaccurate.

In fact, our expectations of our worries are also usually wildly overestimated. As the old saying goes, “most of my greatest fears never came upon me”.

I’ll discuss fear another day. For the moment, let’s stick with our expectations of happiness, even if it is artificial happiness.

The Benefits of Freedom Denied

Here is the key point:

Not getting what you want

may make you just as happy as

getting what you want.

Bizarre, but true.

Research has shown that we can manufacture our own artificial happiness from within. It is a synthetic happiness, but it is still very real.

In fact, the availability of choice can sometimes actually lower your level of happiness. We seem to be happiest when we’re totally stuck, when we are trapped.

This finding has great relevance to anyone fighting cancer.

A cancer diagnosis is a sledge hammer blow to your choices. They are shattered. “Stop what you are doing. Go to chemo jail. Do not not pass go.”

Life as you know it ceases. You have a mandatory ticket on the treatment roller coaster and it is one hell of a ride. If the cancer doesn’t do you in, then the bloody treatment alone might.

I could go on about that drama, but let’s stick with the main topic – artificial happiness and the power of having no choice.

I’l leave you with some odd facts to ponder. Make of them what you will.

Odd Fact 1

Arranged marriages have much lower divorce rates (4%) than the Australian national average of around 40% of marriages that end in the Family Court.

Odd Facts 2 

Many North Koreans who defect to South Korea struggle with mental health issues. Medical staff at a government reintegration centre report
that about 70 per cent of their patients exhibit symptoms of depression or other stress-related disorders.

In fact, life in the South is often so disappointing for defectors that around 100 people a year return back to the North as double defectors.

I’m sure there are all sorts of issues at play: suspicion; social isolation; lack of employment and educational disadvantage. Regardless, greater freedom does not result in greater happiness for these double defectors or for many more who decide to stick it out in the South.

Similarly, there was also a high level of discontent among East German defectors. Even though The Wall came down over two decades ago, there are still misunderstandings between East and West with the ‘Ossis’  (Easteners) being derided as “ungrateful complainers”. That may not be a fair accusation, but it may indicate that some are not all that happy with their greater freedom.

Photo by Jurvetson


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