Charlotte Bronte was quoted as saying, “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato.”
According to Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Most of us would not approach the word from his philosophical perspective, but we would all agree that happiness is something we all desire to possess. This time around, I ask you to look beyond the desire to be happy and consider what it means to be happy. The word that Aristotle and others used for happiness was eudaimonia. This is best translated as human flourishing, a state of thriving or optimal living over a period of time.
However we define the word, one of the major problems we run into is knowing what will make us happy. “Affective forecasting” is the term psychologists use in their study of humans being able to predict that which will make us happy. As it turns out, we are abysmally bad at doing this.
Affective forecasting is important because being able to accurately predict what will make us happy—and to know for how long—is the basis for most of our choices in life.
Choosing our spouse, our careers, what other goals to pursue—all these are largely based on how much happiness we think such decisions will bring us.
What the research is showing is that we are not very good at this prediction.
We want to be happier, living a life of flourishing, but we often chase both the wrong things and the wrong paths to get to them. Even more disturbing is the fact that we are often disappointed when we get the very things we think we want.
We are generally pretty good at predicting whether something is going to be pleasant or unpleasant. We are lousy, however, at predicting the intensity and duration of our future emotional reactions to this event. This flaw in our prediction is termed by psychologist as impact bias.
Let me give you an example. Imagine for a moment that you just won the lottery. Now, imagine that you just became a quadriplegic. Which of these two individuals would you expect to be happier a year from now compared to how they were before these two major events? In fact, this study has been done, and the surprising finding was that each one was equally happy. Study of 80 of the lottery winners of the Pennsylvania State lottery revealed the winners to be no happier a year after winning than before. Christopher Reeve, the actor, a year after his tragic accident, said in an interview: “I’m not living the life I thought I would lead…but it does have meaning, purpose. There is love. There is joy, there is laughter.”
In recent research projects, college students overestimated how happy or unhappy they would be after being assigned or denied to their first choice dormitory, couples routinely overestimated how unhappy they would be three months after a breakup, and untenured college professors overestimated how unhappy or happy they would be five years after being denied or granted tenure.
Impact bias is a problem for us because we may actively chase or avoid an outcome that in the end will not optimize our wellbeing – not make us as happy as we expected.
There is an evolutionary advantage to impact bias: It serves as a huge motivator, making us work extra hard to obtain things we think will be really great and avoid things we think will be very bad. However, when we grab that brass ring that’s been dangled in front of us, our disappointment is great when it doesn’t produce the expected positive effect for more than a fleeting moment.
What the research shows is that, in general, things or outcomes that we chase are not as good or as bad as we think they will be.
As an aside, research has clearly established that if you are going to spend money to help buy you happiness, you are better off spending it on experiences rather than possessions.
Dan Gilbert at Harvard has been studying happiness for a couple of decades, and has written extensively on the subject, as well as providing TED talks that have been watched by millions. According to him, there is no way to accurately predict happiness.
Whatever you think will make you happier in the future is untrue because we are likely to base our feeling on what is going on in the present.
During an interview with the New York Times, Gilbert states that:
“As a species, we tend to be moderately happy with whatever we get. If you take a scale that goes from zero to 100, people, generally, report their happiness at about 75. We keep trying to get to 100. Sometimes, we get there. But we don’t stay long.” (Dreifus, 2008)
He suggests that the best way to predict how happy you will be in the future is to ask the person who has already gone through a similar experience.
“It turns out we’re not nearly as unique as we think,” Gilbert continues in his interview, “at least when it comes to emotional responses to events”.
Instead of assuming each event in our life is unique to only ourselves, Gilbert offers an interdependent view where humans learn more from each other, specifically regarding emotions.
The obvious question becomes, “If we are so poor at predicting that which will make us happy, have the people who have been studying this question for some time now come up with a reasonably documented answer?” To find out, read the next and final installment on this topic in my upcoming blog.