How To Turn Up The Happiness Synthesizer In Your Head

Over the process of evolution, the human brain tripled in size, mostly gaining girth in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), giving us our big foreheads. In this case, it’s not just that bigger is better. It’s what having a bigger brain allows us to do that makes all the difference. While plenty of cool abilities come with our huge foreheads, one of the most important is that the PFC acts as an experience simulator. Just like pilots practice in-flight simulators to avoid mistakes, our PFC lets us play things out in our heads before taking the plunge in real life.

In the TED Talk, The Surprising Science Of Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University social psychologist PhD, explains it like this:

Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t have liver-and-onion ice cream, and it’s not because they whipped some up, tried it and went, ‘Yuck.’ It’s because, without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavor and say ‘yuck’ before you make it.

Your Experience Simulator Isn’t Very Good At Making You Happy

The thing you need to know about your experience simulator is that it is wrong most of the time. Your experience simulator makes you believe that different outcomes will be more important to you than they really are, both positive and negative. Gilbert goes on to say:

From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. This almost floors me — 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 synthesized in your head. Your brain has a kind of “psychological immune system,” largely non-conscious cognitive processes that that help you change your views of the world, so that you can feel better about the world in which you find yourself. It’s your very own, built-in happiness synthesizer. 

According to Gilbert, natural happiness is when we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, there’s a strong belief that synthetic happiness is inferior because as Gilbert puts it:

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? …a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable.

“Tis nothing good or bad. But thinking makes it so.”

While it’s true that some things are just inherently better than others, (a trip to Hawaii is going to beat a tonsillectomy every time), turns out Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he wrote that. All of us possess a psychological immune system, this capacity to synthesize happiness, but some of us are better at it than others. 

Most of us don’t even realize that we have this capability or that we can use it as our ally, which ends up being to our overwhelming disadvantage. According to Gilbert: “….we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing…”

You can strengthen your psychological immune system, and happiness is a skill you can learn just like you pick up anything else with practice. Happiness can be found in your awareness of your thoughts, emotions, choices, and behaviors, and your willingness to work with, consciously choose and change them.

Making Happiness A Habit

Lori Deschene, founder of Tiny Buddha, has a new book, Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges, which presents simple, creative, and fun challenges for you to bring more happiness and love into your, your friends’ and loved ones’, and even strangers’ worlds. It’s a daily guide to making happiness a habit.

The book focuses on a theme for personal growth each month, like releasing anger and forgiving or acceptance and nonjudgment or admiration and appreciation.  Each week starts with sharing related inspirational stories from real members of the Tiny Buddha online community (just like you and I) followed by a daily challenge exercise or activity, reflection, and “How Did It Go?”with a review at the end of each month.

For example, January 3 goes as follows:

Challenge:  Ask a friend or coworker who seems frazzled if you can help with anything.

For Reflection:

  1. How do you usually look or act when  you’re frazzled and in need of help?
  2. How does it affect your life and your relationships when you feel overwhelmed?
  3. What’s the most helpful thing someone could say or do when you’re feeling this way?

How Did It Go?:  Did your friend or coworker accept your offer? If so, what did you do to help?

April 25 has these suggestions:

Challenge:  As an exercise to put things in perspective, go about your day as if you were going to die tomorrow. Whenever you feel angry, ask yourself, Would I want to spend my last day alive dwelling on this?

For Reflection:

  1. What type of things have you dwelled on lately that you’d be more than willing to let go if you knew it was your last day on Earth?
  2. What has caused you to dwell on these things?
  3. What would you tell yourself to help them go if you knew your time with your loved ones was almost up?

How Did it Go?:  Did the shift in perspective help you? If so, what kind of things did you let go, and why they not worth dwelling on?

(From TINY BUDDHA’S 365 TINY LOVE CHALLENGES. Copyright © 2015 by Lori Deschene. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.)

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  1. I know this to be true Debbie. Even as a kid I was ‘dubbed pollyanna’ because it was so easy to get back to smiling again. It’s been a great habit to develop over the years and so interesting to read that happiness truly does come from within (not that I needing convincing of course!) 🙂

    • Elle,

      So nice to hear that. If you were a “Positive Pollyanna,” I was a “Nervous Nelly.” I can never remember not being anxious. (Matter of fact – I think there’s a blog in there somewhere!) But, it is nice to now have the tools to deal with it. Anyone can work with their inherent nature to find more happiness.

  2. Faiza Nawaz Reply

    Iv been a worry wrat, still struggling,but i gotta get my way outta this.thank u for this article.plz throw more insight on strengthening this happiness immune system and synthetic happiness.

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