Perception, not materialism, affects happiness.
If you believe newspaper advertisements and television commercials, you might think that a new car, bigger house, or newest gadget could provide the ultimate level of happiness. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA), as materialism has increased, happiness has decreased. So what can truly make us happy?
Science behind happiness
Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained in a Ted Talk, “The surprising science of happiness,” that the prefrontal cortex in the brain acts as “an experience simulator.” This means people can imagine an experience before it actually happens.
But, Gilbert clarified, the simulator has a tendency to “overestimate the hedonistic impact” of an experience, making the outcomes seem better than they really are. He calls this impact bias.
Types of happiness
Perception has everything to do with the way we experience happiness, of which there are two types, according to Gilbert. He said that synthetic happiness occurs when people convince themselves that they are happy in spite of not getting what they want. The other type, natural happiness, results when people do get what they want.
Gilbert added that our society, which promotes the principle that having more is better, considers synthetic happiness inferior to natural happiness.
Our psychological immune system
Gilbert asserted that true happiness does not depend on external factors that continually change, but can be found within through our psychological immune system, which helps us find a way to be happy. And Matthieu Ricard, biochemist turned Buddhist monk, concurs.
During his Ted Talk, “The habits of happiness,” Ricard said whatever we do, hope or dream “… is related to a deep, profound desire for well-being or happiness,” although different definitions for happiness exist, based on a person’s idea of quality of life.
In fact, Ricard prefers to use the term “well-being,” rather than happiness and cites the Buddhist view that well-being “… is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment. A state that actually pervades and underlies … all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way.”
Ricard agrees that searching for happiness outside of the self is ineffective and, like Gilbert, he points out that individuals have no control on the outside world. Rather, the mind controls an experience, so he encourages introspection—the principle behind mind training—to bring about awareness to this.
More than 15 years ago, Martin E.P. Seligman, author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, began leading the positive psychology movement. He does not equate happiness with “… buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer and smiling,” but instead asserts “… everything we do is done in order to make us happy.” According to Seligman, the goal of positive psychology, which is the gold standard for measuring well-being, is to increase flourishing.
The drive to find happiness is an ongoing endeavor. In 2007, Randy Taran, a Palo Alto filmmaker, launched Project Happiness, an initiative that promotes positive psychology. Within this rubric, the practices of gratitude, forgiveness and self-reflection are encouraged to help improve our well-being.
What is the value of priceless moments?
But if you want to put a price tag on happiness, consider figures from Nattavudh Powdthavee’s paper about putting a value to social relationships from life satisfaction surveys. In terms of life satisfaction, a better social life is worth $131,232 annually; a happy marriage, $105,000; good health, $463,170; and seeing friends and family regularly, $97,265. So while material possessions are not effective to buy happiness, certain intangibles are.
Finding happiness starts with yourself
Become aware of your impact bias, and learn that outcomes aren’t always as bad as originally thought. It will become clear to you that your psychological immune system needs a boost. You can achieve this by thinking positively, and never underestimating the value of your social life and good health.