Dan Gilbert on Happiness: Overview

Instructor: Diane Davis
Read about the social psychologist Dan Gilbert and his views on happiness. Learn about his theory on synthetic happiness and test your understanding with a quiz.

Dr. Dan Gilbert

Dr. Gilbert is a Professor of Harvard University. In 2008 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His 2007 book, Stumbling on Happiness, spent 25 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and has been translated into 30 languages.

Happiness is deceptively simple - it's about being satisfied with life and experiencing more positive emotions than negative. Many of us find the pursuit of happiness to be frustratingly difficult. A relatively new branch of psychology, called positive psychology, studies what makes people happy and what doesn't. Researchers are learning that the keys to happiness are within everyone's reach. But what do we really know about happiness? Can we study it? Are we born with it? Can we make ourselves happier? Who's happy and who's not, and why? What makes us happy? Researchers are learning more and more about the answers to these questions. Dan Gilbert has developed a theory of happiness called synthetic happiness.

Synthetic Happiness

What is synthetic happiness? It's the ability 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.' We have the ability to shape and manipulate our perception of things and arrange them so that we like and enjoy what we have. Natural happiness is what 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, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. 'Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.'

Synthetic happiness challenges the idea that we'll be miserable if we don't get what we want. We have a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness. For example, the physical immune system must strike a balance between two competing needs: the need to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, and the need to recognize and respect the body's own cells. If the physical immune system is hypoactive, it fails to defend the body against micropredators and we are stricken with infections; but if the physical immune system is hyperactive, it mistakenly defends the body against itself and we are stricken with autoimmune diseases. A healthy immune system must balance its competing needs and find a way to defend us well-but not too well.

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