We're no good at judg­ing what makes us happy

Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough - - SOAPBOX -

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.

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