Synthetic Happiness – Michigan Quarterly Review
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Synthetic Happiness

Lately, I find myself thinking that the burning question of our times is not what Jesus would do, but what Schopenhauer would say—specifically about the idea that happiness can be willed, in much the same way that good fortune (or reversal of ill-fortune) can be “attracted” through positive thinking.  The research is there . . . but lagging behind, as usual, is human credulity.  Specifically, I have been meditating on the concept, coined by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, of “synthetic happiness.”  What is synthetic happiness?  It’s the ability (learned, to be sure) to manufacture one’s own happiness.  It stands in contradistinction to “natural happiness,” or, happiness that is based on things in the external world “going well.”  Blame the temptation to believe in such a phenomenon (like calorie-free ice-cream or a zero-interest credit card) on Gilbert, best known for his research on affective forecasting, with a special emphasis on cognitive biases such as the impact bias (broadly defined as the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of future feeling states).  Gilbert is the author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, which has been translated into more than 25 languages and which won the 2007 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books.

Another way to understand synthetic happiness is in terms of competing freedoms.  Freedom is the friend of natural happiness:  when you get what you want, this is natural happiness.  Freedom to choose, on the other hand, can be considered the antithesis of synthetic happiness, because it is often when you don’t get what you want that the potential for manufacturing synthetic happiness comes into play.   Yes, we would all like to be naturally, rather than synthetically happy, all the time.  We would also like babies across the world to be breast-fed, and cars to run smoothly and efficiently on corn oil, and landfills to dissolve within months of their own accord, and so on.

Synthetic versus natural happiness—is this just another hair-splitting distinction?  Wouldn’t most of us settle for any modicum of well-being, no matter where it falls on the continuum from artificial to real?  Happiness of any stripe, after all, is not valued overmuch by most religions and philosophers, save for the Epicureans and Bacchanalians among us, and German philosopher Immanuel Kant would undoubtedly say that striving for happiness would be a classic case of putting means before ends and that the sober feeling of well-being that issues from a job well done or a modest act of moral heroism is the reward for “acting only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”  (Religious and moral philosophers’ views on suffering are much more widely disseminated, the Catholic conception of purgatory and hell being a paramount example of the Pavlovian karmic laws inherent to Catholic theology in general—bad deed=punishment . . and, by extension, good deeds, done successively=entrance to heaven.)  What is the most perfect metaphor for synthetic happiness, which Gilbert argues is virtually indistinguishable from natural happiness, both as it is felt (internalized) and shared?  Fake bacon?  3-D movies?  Any form of cultural simulacra, in the Baudrillardian sense of the term?

While at the end of the day I believe a poem to be more than a collation of good lines, and love to be more than an exchange of pheromones (this argument for the truth of a thing or an event inhering in the sum rather than the parts could be extended infinitely), I do not find essentializing moves, in any form of discourse, particularly compelling.

And yet, I believe that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to our cultural horror of essentialism (thanks, Richard Rorty!)—perhaps our fear of universalizing moves is a throwback to our fear of organized religion, communism, or any attempt of those in power to adequately represent or speak on behalf of the populace?  (The baby, in this figuration, representing the will to truth, or the belief that it—like the elusive wraith of happiness—as distinct from satiety and satisfaction—even exists.)  And that, ultimately, is what I feel “matters”—the belief in happiness, or truth, however improbable such human desires to realize or however myopic the pursuit of them.  The belief in or valuation of, for that matter, anything, let alone happiness, represents to my thinking, a form of radicalism, in this post-everything age.

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