What doesn't make us happy -- and why we think it will
Most of us have a mental list of what would make us happier. Our culture celebrates the pursuit of money, fame, good looks, material possessions, health, love and power. Yet we’re often disappointed—even when we do get what we want. Research confirms that some of the things we think will make us happy don’t, and researchers are learning more and more about why that is.
Having enough income to meet basic needs and live above the poverty level is very important to happiness. Beyond that, however, research suggests that more wealth does not translate to greater happiness.
Why is this? Research suggests that we’re good at adapting; we’re bad at predicting; our brains are wired for negative emotions; and we’re looking in the wrong places.
Humans are very good at adapting to changing circumstances.
Researchers believe we have a “set point,” or baseline, of happiness that is partly determined by genetics. When something good happens to us, we’ll be happier for a while, but then adapt to our new situation and return to our set point. For example, getting a huge raise is a cause for celebration. After a while, your budget and lifestyle adjust to the higher income. Your expectations for what you need, and your goals for what you want, change. Researchers call this ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances the “hedonic treadmill.”
We are not very good at predicting how happy or sad a future event will make us.
Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we think they will. Daniel Gilbert and other researchers call this “impact bias”: we overestimate the impact of a future event. We tend to do this even if we’ve experienced similar events in the past; part of impact bias is that we aren’t very good at taking into account our past levels of emotion and adaptation. Similar to impact bias, we’re also not very good at assessing how happy people in other life circumstances are. One example of this is found in physical health and disability. People without disabilities or health problems assume people with disabilities are unhappier than they are. There are studies, however, that show that many people with disabilities are able to adapt to their conditions and report being just as happy as those not living with disabilities. Meanwhile, people with health problems often overestimate how happy healthy people are.
We come up empty when we’re looking for happiness because we’re wired for negative feelings.
Psychologist Martin Seligman says: “Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what’s wrong.” Or, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert says: “We have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: That word is dinner.” Negative emotions like anger and fear motivate us to stay safe and solve problems. But what worked in the Pleistocene Era may not be optimum in the modern world, and Seligman says we can train our brains to be more positive and optimistic. Still, no research suggests that it is possible or desirable to feel only positive emotions all the time. In fact, some research found that people who rated themselves as 8 or 9 on a 10-point happiness scale had significantly more income and education than people who rated themselves a 10. Psychologist Ed Diener, the author of the study, also noted research that being extremely happy can be counterproductive when health problems strike. It may be that being moderately happy is happy enough.
When we do pursue happiness, we may be looking in the wrong places.
Chasing—and achieving—wealth, fame, and good looks may actually make us less happy. Researchers asked young adults for two years after graduation from college what they wanted in life and categorized the answers as intrinsic or extrinsic. They also asked the young people how much progress they had made toward their goals, and asked them to rate their well-being and happiness. The researchers found that young adults who valued intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, close relationships, and community involvement, were more satisfied with their lives than those who had extrinsic goals, such as wealth and “achieving the look I’ve been after.” Even the young people who had achieved their extrinsic goals reported more negative emotions like shame and anger, more physical ailments, and less satisfaction with life. It seems that happiness really does come from within.
So is the deck stacked against us? Not at all. Forty percent of what makes us happy is within our control. Genetics and evolution explain about half; and life circumstances only about 10%.