From my experience, or even other people’s experiences, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing an exam, and so forth, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.
In fact, a recent study showing 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. Why? Because happiness can be synthesised. Human beings have something that we might think of as a “psychological immune system.” A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.
We synthesise happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found. Now, you don’t need me to give you too many examples of people synthesizing happiness, I suspect. Though I’m going to show you some examples of what people sometimes say when they are synthesizing happiness. “I am so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, mentally and almost every other way.” “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” “I believe it turned out for the best.” Now there’s nothing wrong with saying all these things, but you must mean it when you say it. That is the secret of happiness.
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it? It turns out that freedom — the ability to make up your mind and change your mind — is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one that you would most enjoy. But freedom to choose — to change and make up your mind — is the enemy of synthetic happiness.
The lesson I want to leave you with from this post is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.