What makes you happy?
December 24, 2003
Do you know what makes you happy? Are you sure? According to research done by a small group of psychologists from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia, along with an economist from Carnegie-Mellon, it seems that Americans aren’t very good at predicting their own happiness.
A recent article in The New York Times by Jon Gertner reported on the findings of these researchers, which clearly indicate that we may be better at predicting things outside of our control, like the winner of the next Super Bowl, than we are at predicting things within our control, like our own happiness.
It’s self-evident that most humans forecast feelings predicated upon current beliefs. But how many of us take the time to match those future emotional states with what we believed at the time we made our predictions?
Almost every action we take is based upon a belief of what that action will yield. The decision to ski Look Ma, buy jewelry, have children or work 60 hours per week to gain that big promotion is predicated upon our prediction of the emotional consequences that will follow those decisions.
A bit esoteric, perhaps, but certainly logical. But now comes the illogical part. The reality is that while we are mostly inaccurate in our predictions, we do little to change the behavior.
Think about something that you believe will bring you happiness. Perhaps it’s a new kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. Or maybe it’s a new BMW. Now think of something in your past that you acquired because you believed it was going to make you happy. Maybe it was a plasma TV, a date with Vanessa or an Armani suit.
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Chances are that if you’re like most Americans, the object of your past desire once acquired was less satisfying in both intensity and duration than you anticipated. If that is the case, it means that our own inability to accurately forecast our feelings undermines a very basic human assumption – that we actually understand what we want and are adept at improving our well being through those decisions.
Our erroneous beliefs about prospective events causes ineffective forecasting, which in turn leaves us with the reality that most of our decisions about future happiness are either naive or downright mistaken.
Most of us don’t get the big emotional events wrong. Having our son or daughter graduate from college or holding a newborn seldom disappoints. But when our beliefs about future emotional states are applied across the broad spectrum of our lives, our mistaken beliefs lead directly to mistakes in making appropriate choices about our future happiness, satisfaction and pleasure.
To further exacerbate the situation, most of us enter into what I’ll call a human fail-safe mode, which practically guarantees that we will continue to make faulty decisions about our future happiness. For example: Some people may believe that winning the lottery will make them happy. Others believe that a $5 million home in Bachelor Gulch will make them happy. But because the odds of winning the lottery or upgrading from a small East Vail condo to Bachelor Gulch are slim, they will never know for sure if those acquisitions will indeed bring them the happiness they desire.
Most people assume that money, or the lack of it, is the obstacle to their happiness. But the reality is that our happiness is not about money at all. It’s about what we believe will make us happy.
Mick Jagger sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” But perhaps a more appropriate lyric would have been, “We don’t really know what we want.”
Why is it that we enter each holiday season with such great anticipation? We think about the parties, visits from family, Christmas morning, and New Year’s celebrations. Yet all too often, come Jan. 2 and all we are left with is a holiday hangover.
Perhaps the answer can be summed up in two words – belief and focus. Our beliefs are mistaken and our focus is misdirected. Years ago I came upon the best definition of success I had ever seen. It’s appeared in an earlier commentary of mine, but I thought that the timing was appropriate to share it again.
We should strive for peace of mind, which means freedom from fear, freedom from anger, and freedom from guilt. Secondly, we should promote good health and a high level of energy within our own lives. Next, long term, intimate and mature relationships with other people is a requisite for happiness.
As far as money is concerned, having enough that we do not worry about it is all that is really necessary to be happy. It’s also doubtful that success and happiness can be achieved without a commitment to worthy goals and ideals. And finally, a feeling of personal fulfillment and self-actualization will go much farther in securing our happiness than a new BMW ever could.
It seems to me that if we would focus on achieving the states of existence outlined above, happiness and satisfaction will take care of itself.
Happy holidays to all.
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com