To go home or not to go home?
The dilemma plagued me during the first few days of lockdown in San Francisco. Fellow M’23s were leaving by the score as governments around the world announced shutdown after border shutdown. At one point, I’d visited Fisherman’s Wharf—judge me if you will, but I live off of photogenic tourist destinations—and it was so deserted I could sit cross-legged on the deck by the world-famous sea-lions and read for an hour without any self-consciousness. Some days later, I planned a boba night for some friends who were leaving the next day. I ordered delivery from my favorite boba place in the Sunset, only to find out they’d closed at six PM, not at nine, which used to be the case. Early the next morning, Market Street was damp and deserted; my friend’s Uber splashed rainwater at my feet and everything was cold.
It was these small realizations that things weren’t the same in San Francisco that had me wondering whether it was better for me to go back to Japan. The summer before, I had come to San Francisco with a promise to myself: that I was going to experience a whole world or two beyond my bubble; that I was going to stay strong even when things got hard; that I was going to get a taste of independence.
I flew home anyway.
What is Synthetic Happiness?
Suppose you are running on a treadmill. At first, you’re running at 7 km/hour. You sweat a bit and you get stitches on your stomach, but after a few minutes, the discomfort becomes the new normal. So you up your game a bit—now, you’re running at 8 km/hour. You experience some more discomfort, but after a while, you get used to that, too. After a while, you go back to 7 km/hour, but this time you don’t feel anything. Something that was hard a few minutes ago has now become easy; you’re skipping on clouds, the sweat cooling on your skin.
…it is the feeling of bouncing back to your baseline, like a rubber band that’s been stretched taut and released.
The hedonic adaptation theory (or more intuitively, the hedonic treadmill theory) says that the experience of happiness occurs much in the same vein as running on a treadmill. When something great happens, you might experience a sudden spike in how happy you feel, but after a while, you get used to it, until you are no more or less happy than how you felt before. What’s more, something that would have made you happy before won’t give you the same amount of happiness now, because you have become used to happy events. The same goes for when something horrible happens and you become much less happy.
Everyone has a certain happiness baseline. Genetics and personality can both factor into where your baseline is—some are born or adapted to feeling generally happier than others. Having an internal locus of control, for one, has been posed as one of the determining factors of one’s subjective happiness. Another factor is having non-zero-sum life-goals (e.g. seeking the happiness of family and friends in addition to one’s own), as opposed to having zero-sum life-goals (e.g. pursuing material wealth and status.)
What is important here, however, is that it is more common for people to hover around their happiness baseline than it is to experience a radical shift from it, and stay at a new happiness baseline (significantly happier or significantly less happy) for the remainder of their lives. Picking up from the analogy, it is much more likely for me to hover around the speed I can run at right now than to be hit with sudden inspiration and somehow become a runner at the next (delayed) Olympic Games.
Research suggests that even life events as traumatic as chronic injuries may not have the power to change your happiness baseline. In one study done by Roxane L. Silver, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, accident victims who suffered severe spinal cord injuries were asked to rate their emotions for a certain period after their accidents. Silver observed that while in the first week or so, the victims experienced major negative emotions, it only took another seven weeks until most victims were back to feeling more happy than unhappy.
Notably, recent studies show more ambiguity. In 2008, Professor Bruce Headey of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research showed that sustaining disabilities and developing chronic illnesses mostly do have significant impacts on one’s happiness. Still, hedonic adaptation theory is yet to be refuted, at least with regards to less permanent and less drastic life events than chronic injuries/illnesses: In another study, done by Fujita and Diener in 2005 and published on the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, just 9% of a panel of over 3,500 German residents experienced a significant shift in happiness level over the course of 17 years.
Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, proposes two kinds of happiness: natural happiness and synthetic happiness. The happiness that we all know of is natural happiness—the feeling we experience when we get what we want. We might feel happy eating a hearty meal after hours of intense hunger. Or, we might have felt happy if all Minervans could have finished their semester in their rotation cities.
On the other hand, synthetic happiness is what we feel when we don’t get what we want. This is the happiness you feel regardless of how good or bad your situation is objectively—-it is the feeling of bouncing back to your baseline, like a rubber band that’s been stretched taut and released. The spinal cord injuries were objectively horrible and life-changing events, but the victims bounced back anyway; they synthesized happiness for themselves.
A Brief Note on Impact Bias
Yet, you would have expected that the accident victims would have suffered from unhappiness for much longer than a couple of months. Impact bias allows you to overestimate the psychological impact of an event—both its intensity and its duration. I was afraid that, should I choose to go back to Japan before the semester finished, I would end up feeling aimless and regretful and just plain bitter, longing for an all-M’23 End-of-First-Year celebration that would never happen. But I came back to Japan and, apart from severe jetlag, things were more or less OK.
…after all, people don’t become significantly happier with their lives just because some miracle happened.
Becoming aware of impact bias may do two things. You can become more risk-taking, or at least less risk-averse. When faced with a risky decision that may yield a great outcome, but may also lead to a highly negative one, you still might be able to take that risk. After all, what’s so horrible about that potential negative outcome, if spinal cord injury victims could come to terms with their accidents in two months? What would be worse is if you didn’t take that chance, and spent the rest of your life wondering where it could’ve led you if you had taken it.
Awareness of impact bias also allows you to stop feeling jealous of other people. If something great happens to someone else by pure chance, you’d think, why them? Why not me? But you can let go of the illusion that the great happiness they might be feeling right now will last as long as you think, or that the bitterness you’re feeling right now will last, either. In one study, lottery winners were asked to rate their general happiness levels, all of whom less than 1.5 years had passed after winning the lottery: “Lottery winners and controls were not significantly different in their ratings of how happy they were now, how happy they were before winning (or, for controls, how happy they were 6 months ago), and how happy they expected to be in a couple of years.” It’s safe to say that after all, people don’t become significantly happier with their lives just because some miracle happened. Over the course of their lives, they stay more or less around their happiness baseline, and you stay around yours.
Once you realize these things, you become freer. In the meantime, you can also stop buying lottery tickets.
Your Happiness During the Pandemic
Surely, there must be a catch, you’d think. Why should you take this seriously when you haven’t even heard of synthetic happiness or impact bias before?
Gilbert suggests that the reason we never hear of this stuff is because synthetic happiness is capitalism’s worst fear. “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?” he says in his Ted Talk “The surprising science of happiness” that has over 18 million views.
When we feel unhappy, it’s easier to blame it on outside factors. Maybe you feel upset because your closet isn’t looking pretty enough, or because you are at home instead of downtown San Francisco. Then, you’ll reason, a new dress or a plane ticket will make you feel better. The endless feedback loop of “natural happiness” looks something like this: I’m unhappy → It’s probably because I lack this → I purchase/achieve this → I fool myself to think I’m happy now → I realize I’m still not quite happy. Sometimes, when we follow the cycle religiously, we lose our breaths in the midst.
Synthetic happiness is not much of a cycle as it is stagnant. When you’re pursuing synthetic happiness, you’re trying to become happier not through external achievement, but through revising your perception of your current situation.
Since I’ve been back in Japan, I have experienced both ups and downs—the ups being the times where I felt content in my situation, the downs being when I wished that things were different. During the past four months, I had kept myself busy with Zoom calls, online workshops, Coursera, waiting tables, and spending time with family. For each activity, there was something that made me happy and something that made me feel inadequate. Sure, I was gaining some experience through my restaurant job, and frankly, it was a superb position from which to people-watch, but it was nothing compared to my imaginary internship in New York City. I would have rather focused on just the first part of that sentence.
The term “synthetic happiness” sounds fancy, but in the end, it is really gratitude. Now, we’ve all heard of that one. Gratitude is simple in theory yet difficult in practice. Especially when you are somewhere like Minerva, where opportunities are infinite and comparisons with other people never-ending, no amount of internships or projects or hackathon prizes can feel enough. In the chase towards the More, it’s easy to forget the Enough. If we feel bored, useless, or anxious while this pandemic lasts, it might be a good idea to make time for gratitude, and let our innate happiness manifest itself.