I’ll Be Happy Later: On Needs, Optimism and Flawed Perception
The fulfillment of our desires will make us happier; a new house, car, dress, kitchen, bathroom, curtains, boat, bike, hat or phone. Right?
It follows that a richer society will be happier and that measures of wealth will indicate overall happiness. The same “needs met equals happiness” assumption is true for non-material things; a new partner, a current one who shows more appreciation, a different boss, a different place to work, starting a family, some new friends. We spend a lot of time picturing a world where our wants have been met and in it we are happier. Thousands of people in marketing organizations and in the media are employed to capitalize on this innate tendency and encourage this view of happiness. They do a fine job. So good that we’re way past noticing they’re even doing it.
But there’s one tiny problem, one chink in the reasoning upon which a large chunk of our experience is predicated. The correlation between needs being met and our happiness is far, far weaker than we assume and sometimes it doesn’t exist at all. Worse still the way we pursue happiness can actually reduce our well being. When it comes to predicting future happiness we’re just not very accurate.
“What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”
Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister and Novelist, 1804-1881)
It’s not that we should stop planning for the future and abandon our hopes and dreams. Absolutely not. That would be bad on lots of levels. We just need to realize our foresight is flawed and let that realization guide us to focus differently.
Planning provides us with the sense of control necessary to maintain our mental health. Think of stress as the equivalent of a loss of control. We push back on this stress by making plans. Of course, if our plans were to come true we see ourselves as happier. Plans wouldn’t be much use for mental health if we foresaw ourselves stumbling or becoming less happy. Keeping our hopes up is definitely good for us.
Plans, by their nature though, contain assumptions that only certain circumstances will arise. There’s not a lot of “what if” when we predict our future happiness. Our view is subjective, a distortion of reality, whether of the past, present or future. Even if our goals are met the period of increased happiness tends to fade as we reset our expectations and create new goals.
“We take a handful of sand from the vast landscape of awareness around us and we call that handful of sand the truth.”
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Here is a very, very brief summary of the psychology behind our subjectivity:
Both our memory and our perception are incomplete. We must make decisions and recall experiences quickly so we use partial information and our brains make up the rest. Our minds work like a really complex and multimedia version of “complete the sentence… “. But in our minds there is no difference between the accurate parts and our fabrications. What’s more our predictions about the future are heavily biased toward our current experiences; we tend to assume that the way we feel about something now is how we will feel in the future. Layered on top of these biases is an uncanny knack to derive rational and coherent explanations, convincing stories, for the way things are and how we see them. The truth is the truth, variations on this are inside people’s heads.
Here’s an example of what all this can mean…
Imagine you’ve been doing the same job for a while. You’re pretty good at it, better than some of the people at a higher level being paid more. It’s time you were promoted. If only you earned more money, if only you had more authority, if only you didn’t feel like you were being taken advantage of, you’d be much happier. You speak to your boss, you make your plans, you work even harder and one day the promotion happens. And low, you do have more money, more authority and more respect. All the changes that you imagined came true… with one exception. Immediately following the achievement of your goal you did feel happier. About a month later the same sense of discontent crept in, not that you noticed this happening. “How’s it going”, asks your friend. “Same old, same old”, is your ambivalent response. “Hey didn’t you get that promotion a couple of months back. The one you were waiting for?”, he rejoins with much enthusiasm. “Yeah sure but now and have got all these crazy people to manage and I got this new boss who sucks”.
And so you begin to plan for the next thing that will make you happier. Maybe next time round you’ll turn out to be right.
The bottom line is this… we’re convinced that we’re going to be happy if certain things come true but we’re often wrong. We could be overestimating our future happiness or we’re simply focusing on the wrong things. Even if were right about what will increase our happiness it tends to be very short lived as our thresholds for happiness adapt to the new situation.
A reliable way to take your flawed happiness predictions out of the equation is to ask someone who has faced your choices and lived through the outcome. Your subjectivity can’t intrude if you’re getting advice from someone who has “been there and done that”. Better still seek advice from multiple people who have elected for each of the options on offer. How does the experience of that new kitchen stack up for folks who spent $5k, $10k or $30k six months down the road? Use the internet thingy-ma-jig to research the future from your fellow humans’ perspectives. We tend not to reach out to “experts” because we believe that our circumstances are too unique for comparisons. Studies show that we overestimate our uniqueness and that using surrogates is a much more accurate predictive tool than our own imagination.
The surest way not to fall into the “I’ll be happy in the future” trap is not to connect the future with your happiness at all. Work on being happy now. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow but see these ventures for what they are; specific goals that provide specific results, none of which are about increased happiness. And the surest way to be happy now is not to think about your own happiness at all and focus instead on the happiness of others.
Both of these things, being happy now and enabling the happiness of others, are both counter-self and counter-cultural. We’re set up to be unhappy by evolution and by our environment. Don’t panic, don’t get depressed. If the path is to train yourself to be happy now and to work on helping others the good news is that you have everything you need to help yourself. All the happiness you ever needed is already in your hands.
Michael Keith is an author for the blog On How to Be Happy. He gathers ancient wisdom and the latest and greatest thinking to connect you to true and lasting happiness.
The knowledge you receive at On How to Be Happy can help you to increase contentment in your own self, your relationships with others, and in the workplace.
If you are ready to learn how to start living a better life go to http://www.onhowtobehappy.com
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