Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Synthetic happiness

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Synthetic happiness:
What is synthetic happiness and how can it be manufactured?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Synthetic happiness is a concept popularised by Dan Gilbert during a TED talk titled "The Surprising Science of Happiness" on February 2004. Synthetic happiness has received little mainstream attention since this though, due to it essentially being a glorified defence mechanism that is easier studied through other emotional and motivational topics. Regardless, this piece will look into synthetic happiness' role as a defence mechanism, how it's created and it's comparisons to natural happiness.

Definition[edit | edit source]

Synthetic happiness is a non-conscious cognitive process that changes our view of events or situations in order for an individual to feel happy about those events or situations, particularly in the case when they are not in the individual's favour (Meier, 2009). In essence, it acts and is often referred to as part of our psychological immune system (Pychyl, 2017).

Creating synthetic happiness[edit | edit source]

Individuals create synthetic happiness because at its heart synthetic happiness is part of the psychological immune system (Pychyl, 2017). This in essence makes synthetic happiness an innate defense mechanism that we all implement unconsciously (Cramer, 2000).

Figure 1: Happy Mood Changes Our Entire Mindset

Defence mechanisms typically fall into two general categories: dissociation and cognitive distortions. Disassociation allows an individual to detach from the negative emotional state whilst cognitive distortions manipulate the experience towards being more positive for the ego[factual?]. Synthetic happiness is a cognitive distortion as it takes a negative experience or situation and flips it in a way that still leaves the individual feeling happy about the experience (Bowins, 2004). Synthetic happiness as a cognitive distortion helps us in many ways to accept difficulty in our lives (Gilbert et al., 2017). It is particularly effective in mitigating the damage and impact of things we can not change. In fact, synthetic happiness seems to work more effectively when an individual is trapped and doesn't have to face the free choice paradigm (Pychyl, 2017).

Thus, synthetic happiness is created in order to manage and mitigate stressors in our lives. The ability for humans to emulate happiness internally is important as happiness changes an individuals[grammar?] entire mindset and perspective on events (Seligman, 2013). This mindset is far more positive and apt to mitigate stressors as one study found that happy individuals when put into an experiment where they had no control over events still rated themselves as having on average 35% control as opposed to depressed individuals who accurately stated they had zero control (Seligman, 2013). This may seem insignificant but optimism and perceived control have been shown to promote active coping measures and negatively correlated with stress (Fontaine, Manstead & Wagner, 1993).

Impact bias[edit | edit source]

Impact bias is a theory that demonstrates an individual's tendency to attribute more impact to certain events then they actually possess. This happens both in regards to future events and also retroactively. For example, an individual may look back on an event such as failing a test and view that as having an impact vastly disproportionate to its actual effects and thus see it as having much more control over their overall happiness then it does (Wilson, Meyers & Gilbert, 2003). Synthetic happiness allows individuals to avoid this disproportionate impact by putting a positive spin on negative effects and potentially reducing cognitive dissonance and allowing individuals to reconcile with negative event faster.

Biological source[edit | edit source]

Synthetic happiness is biologically identical to natural happiness[factual?]. Therefore refer to Happiness for general biology behind happiness.

Synthetic happiness is only physiologically possible due to the ability of our advanced prefrontal cortex that evolved over the last 2 million years. This is because the prefrontal cortex is our experience simulator (Meier, 2009). This means that the prefrontal cortex allows for envisioning the past, envisioning the future and the ability to view situations from the view point of others (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). Which also allows us to manipulate situations within our own mind to perform the mental gymnastics required to produce a positive spin on what would originally be a negative scenario[grammar?].

Negative aspects[edit | edit source]

Whilst so far synthetic happiness has seemed to be purely a positive it does however have several potential negative elements with its potential to increase procrastination/reduced motivation and reduce self-development.  

When considered, it is quite obvious the potential for an overuse of synthetic happiness as opposed to confronting difficulties may lead to increased procrastination and reduced motivation. As counterfactual thinking has shown to be ineffective as a defense mechanism part of the foundations of synthetic happiness would have to be the effective defence technique of denial (Baumeister, Dale & Sommer, 1998). This denial prevents individuals from experiencing the negative emotions and guilt that typically motivate active behaviours by individuals prone to procrastination (Pychyl, 2017). Synthetic happiness effectively removes those negative emotions by spinning a situation in a positive light.

This [what?] behaviour can also be massively counterproductive to self-development. This occurs as synthetic happiness doesn't truly reduce cognitive dissonance but instead it seems to minimise an individual's perception of the gap between their actual and ideal self (Pychyl, 2017). This in turn reduces an individual's motivation for self-improvement as many models point to our aim to become our ideal self as a major motivational factor and a reduction in this dissonance is detrimental to self-development (Gilbert et al., 2017).  For example, if an individual places second in a competition when they expect to win they have two options either synthesize happiness to justify the result to themselves or use this failure to motivate themselves to work harder, it is almost impossible to do both.

Synthetic vs natural happiness[edit | edit source]

Before one can compare natural and synthetic happiness it is important to understand what each type of happiness actually is.

Natural happiness: natural happiness is the happiness that occurs from a positive situation or a situation in which something we want occurs (Meier, 2009)

Synthetic happiness: synthetic happiness is happiness that occurs after a negative situation or from a situation where in the individual receives a suboptimal or negative result (Meier, 2009)

This is important because whilst the situations that lead to the happiness may vary, the brain is still physiologically undergoing the same process to physiologically produce the happiness. This in turn means that synthetic happiness is just as real, valid and has the same constancy as natural happiness (Meier, 2009).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Synthetic happiness is a capable defence mechanism in the vein of cognitive distortions and equivalent in form and constancy to natural happiness (Meier, 2009). Whilst synthetic happiness offers a number of benefits such as mitigation of stressors and reductions in cognitive dissonance (Bowins, 2004)[grammar?]. However individuals need to be careful not to overuse this defence mechanism or else they risk decreases in motivation, increased procrastination and potentially reduced ability to be capable of self development (Gilbert et al., 2017). 

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Do we manually create synthetic happiness?


2 Why do we create synthetic happiness?.

For fun
As a defense mechanism
To improve motivation

3 Is synthetic happiness as potent as natural happiness?


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister, R., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. (1998). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern SocialPsychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal Of Personality, 66(6), 1081-1124.

Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological Defense Mechanisms: A New Perspective. The American Journal Of Psychoanalysis, 64(1), 1-26.

Buckner, R., & Carroll, D. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 11(2), 49-57.

Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.

Fontaine, K., Manstead, A., & Wagner, H. (1993). Optimism, perceived control over stress, and coping. European Journal Of Personality, 7(4), 267-281.

Gilbert, D., McKee, A., Spreitzer, G. and Amabile, T. (2017). Emotional Intelligence Happiness. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Meier, J. (2009). Synthetic Happiness. Retrieved 3 October 2017, from

 Pychyl A, T. (2017). A Downside to Manufacturing Our Own Happiness. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: [Accessed 27 Aug. 2017].

Seligman, M. (2013). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Wilson, T., Meyers, J., & Gilbert, D. (2003). “How Happy Was I, Anyway?” A Retrospective Impact Bias | Social Cognition. Retrieved 22 October 2017, from

External links[edit | edit source]