We're no good at judging what makes us happy
The Rolling Stones have long argued that while we can’t always get what we want, if we try hard enough then (at least some of the time), we can get what we need. If you’re of a certain age, the chances are that you’ve found yourself singing along, appreciating the Stones’ sagacity and wondering why no-one writes songs like that any longer.
But what if the Rolling Stones have been wrong all along? What if the real problem with human happiness is not that we can’t always get what we want but, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Gilbert, that we rarely know what it is that we want?
This is the view from the social sciences. It shows us that human beings are actually very poor at predicting what will make us happy in future. So while you may think that a new house, spouse or holiday in Laos might make you happy, the chances are they won’t. Or not in the way you were hoping.
Predicting how things will make us feel is called ‘‘affective forecasting’’ and there is plenty of research evidence that humans perform very poorly on such forecasts. Psychologists use the concept of the ‘‘hedonic treadmill’’ to explain how we all habituate to the things we save so hard to buy (or quickly adapt to the new-found affluence that comes with a pay rise). The new things, or new wealth, quickly becomes just another part of the background noise of your life. Which is why it’s called a ‘‘treadmill’’, because there is a constant need to replace the shiny things in your life to retain the same level of happiness.
What is interesting to social scientists is that we all experience this treadmill effect and yet we continue to believe that the next new house, spouse, or bright shiny thing will deliver the happiness we’re expecting.
In other words, our predictions about how we will feel in the future fail to account for how quickly we all adapt. The classic case here is of lottery winners.
Research conducted as long as go as 1978 with Illinois State Lottery winners showed that they had returned to their pre-windfall levels of happiness within a year (and that by then winners were no happier than non-winners).
It’s easy to see all of this as an indictment of consumerism and how it has encouraged too many of us to seek happiness through the acquisition of shiny new things. But here’s the twist: affective forecasting and the impact bias work just the same for the setbacks in our lives. As a rule, we tend to massively overestimate how badly we will be affected by misfortune – both in terms of the intensity and the duration or our misery.
Research conducted in the mid2000s showed that people who have become paraplegic as a result of an accident return to their preaccident levels of happiness within a year. The same pattern is seen in research with students who experience poor exam results and with sports fans whose team lose the big game. In many ways this is a very liberating insight because it demonstrates that all of us really should fear regret more than failure.
It’s tempting to say that this adaptability to misfortune shows how resilient human beings can be. In reality, it simply demonstrates how we are just not very good at judging what will make us happy or miserable.
We see the same problem in the research on ‘‘small wins’’. This shows us that a really big achievement rarely makes us feel that much better than a tiny triumph. Which also means that setting large goals that we might accomplish one day is a recipe for hedonic despair.
Instead, what we should all do is to notice the small wins we have every day.