There is some substantial research on what it takes to be a happy person. Dan Gilbert has done a presentation for the TED series that discusses the results of his research. Dan took a very scientific approach to identify some key factors. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work like a lab project.
One of the functions of the pre-frontal cortex is to provide an experience simulator. There is a related function that is called an impact bias. The brain can imagine an outcome and make a decision as to whether it would be an experience that would make us happy. His example was that we don’t have to taste liver flavored ice cream to know that we wouldn’t like it.
The effects of really good or really bad experiences don’t impact happiness for as long or as drastically as we might expect. Our experience simulator has us believing that the effect will be for a long time, but that isn’t what happens in most instances. The research included being wrongly incarcerated for scores of years, becoming a paraplegic, and winning the lottery. It didn't comment on murder, death of a child, or the positive impact of a near-death experience.
Happiness can be synthesized. Human beings have a psychological immune system against disasters that is largely unconscious. We synthesize happiness even though we think happiness is a “thing to be found”. People that are able to make the best of a situation and believe that whatever happened was a good thing are happier. This is actually a belief of spiritualists, which often expresses the idea “All things work for the good.”
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted. Synthetic happiness is what we eventually accept as good, even if we didn’t get what we wanted. People think that synthetic happiness is somehow not as good as natural happiness. Synthetic happiness is as good as natural happiness according to the research. Happiness is an attitude, and a realistic view of reality and reasonable expectations contribute to happiness.
Psychological studies were done that had people rank items and then they were allowed to select two items as their favorites. They were then allowed to choose the one that they would receive. If they were asked to rank the items again, they would rank the item that they chose higher than the one they rejected.
Dan Gilbert extended this lab test such that some people made a final choice as to which item they selected while another group was given the opportunity to change their choice over a short period of time. The group that made one final decision without any chance to change the decision was happier with their choice than those that had an opportunity to change their decision later.
We find in life that many times we second guess ourselves by saying “what if I had done this instead of that?” Instead of accepting our decision and moving forward, we keep looking back and reflect on what might have happened. If we accept the spiritualist principle that everything happens for a reason, we can accept the reality of where we are and become synthetically happy with the outcome. Those that trust their instincts and live with the results are happier than those that second guess themselves.
One of Dan’s conclusions is that freedom of choice favors natural happiness, and that it is the enemy of synthesized happiness. If what we got was what we wanted (natural happiness), then whatever choice we made contributed to our happiness. If we made a choice and then looked at the results of that choice, we are often unhappy because we think we might have done better.
The expectations that we have make a big difference in how happy we are with our lives. People that accept the things they cannot change, they are happier. Dan’s “psychological immune system” works when there is clearly no alternative choice. We have a situation, and we have to deal with it. If we can accept this, we can recover from nearly anything that happens to us.
We do not make these choices to be happy in a vacuum. We may be able to accept our impending death from illness much easier than we would for one of our children. There is an expected natural order, and when that order is disrupted there may be no end of sorrow regarding the event.
We must also have a healthy love of ourselves, and a feeling of self-worth to be happy. We believe that God loves everyone, without exception and without reservation. The studies that Dan related did not deal with anger, perceived injustice, or a lack of self-respect and self-love. People that are focused on negativity are not likely to be happy, and are not likely to be progressing upon the Spirit Path. Happiness is a key factor in self development.
In Paul Reps translation of a koan (parable) of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones there is an illustration of the concept of acceptance of reality. A rich man asked a sage to write a brief statement that the man’s family could use for generations as a guide to happiness. The sage wrote the following words, “Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies”. The man was furious. The sage countered that this was the natural order of an inevitable sequence. We all die, but to have anything happen that would change this order of death was a disaster.
What makes us happy most of the time is that we accept things as they are, and accept that there is ultimately a reason for everything that happens.
It is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
These are wise words from a highly spiritual and intelligent man. Change things that make you unhappy if you can. If you can’t change the situation, accept it and move on.
You can see the entire TED presentation of approximately 22 minutes in the attached video that is entitled "Dan Gilbert – the surprising science of happiness."