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Happiness: control or choice

They won, but they could be just as happy if they lost.
They won, but they could be just as happy if they lost.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton

Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard, gave a speech at the TED conference called, Why Are We Happy? He defines two kinds of happiness. Natural happiness comes from getting what you want, and synthetic happiness is when you find a way to be happy even when you don’t have what you want.

One of his points is that people usually scoff at the second kind. “You didn’t win the game, and you’re still happy? I don’t believe it.” People think of it as sugarcoating sour grapes, but it’s more like, “I would have loved the grapes, but I found some great peaches that are totally satisfying.” Dr. Gilbert describes some novel experiments to prove his point, which you can see on the TED video.

Both as a psychotherapist and as someone interested in the Law of Attraction, this is great news. Psychotherapists rarely have any direct control over what happens in their clients’ lives. When someone goes to a bar and complains about his car, it’s easy to say, “Get rid of it.” But when they go into therapy and complain about their kids, we can’t give that advice (though it has come to mind occasionally). Psychotherapists have to help people find a way to be happy even if the situation around them doesn’t change.

As Dan Gilbert demonstrates, synthetic happiness is as real as getting what you want. So I prefer to use a different name, “happiness by choice.”

The remarkable thing is, if you can learn how to be happy without requiring any person or situation in your life to change, you are suddenly quite powerful. This is what the great spiritual masters achieved. (Additionally, when you stop pushing on the people around you to be different, they are often much nicer to you.) In taking charge of your happiness, the eternal struggle to change things around you stops. You can now do things for the fun of it rather than battling with the world to try to feel better.

The better it gets, the better it gets.

In terms of the Law of Attraction, there is nothing more important than feeling good—because like attracts like. The better you feel, the better the rendezvous you have, the more opportunities you see. The person you are trying to reach will be there when you call. Problems that seemed insoluble will fall into place or become less important. That annoying coworker won’t be at the water cooler when you want to take a break. Life is easier.

Happiness by choice is much more powerful than “natural” happiness, because the latter is totally dependent on controlling things around you. If people and events don’t go your way, then you can’t be happy. A better name for it would be “happiness by control.”

Happiness by choice: you rendezvous with things that feel good. Happiness by control: you try to make things go a certain way so you can feel good.

Choice: you can be okay either way. Control: only one way.

Choice: you take action because it feels good. Control: you take action because you have to.

How do you get happy by choice? Bondage or discipline.

In every life circumstance, there is something that feels good. If you make the effort to search for it and hold your attention there, you will not be in bondage to the vagaries of the people and things around you. The nice thing about this: you’re in full control. You can be as disciplined about your focus as you choose. Like the yogic masters, you can be in charge of your experience.

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