We may have life and liberty. But the pursuit of happiness isn’t going so well. As a country, we are richer than ever. Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier than they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren’t very good at figuring out what will make us happy.
We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks—and, initially, such things boost our happiness. But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we’re yearning for something else.
Similarly, we tell our friends that our kids are our greatest joy. Research, however, suggests the arrival of children lowers parents’ reported happiness, as they struggle with the daily stresses involved.
Which raises the obvious question: Why do we keep striving after these things? Experts offer two explanations.
We aren’t built to be happy. Rather, we are built to survive and reproduce. We wouldn’t be here today if our ancestors didn’t struggle mightily to protect and feed their families. The promise of happiness, meanwhile, is just a trick to jolly us along.
“This is an incentive scheme for the benefit of our genes,” argues Boston money manager Terry Burnham, co-author of Mean Genes. “It’s a very fundamental trick that’s played on us, this lure of perpetual bliss.”
Don’t like the idea that we’re hoodwinked by some hard-wired set of ancient instincts? Blame it, instead, on societal beliefs.
Working hard and raising children may not make us happier. But these beliefs keep society functioning— and those who embrace them prosper and end up passing these values onto their children.
We’re bad at forecasting. Consider a study by academics Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade.
They asked university students in the Midwest and Southern California where they thought someone like themselves would be happier—and both groups picked California, in large part because of the better weather. Yet, when asked how satisfied they were with their own lives, both groups were equally happy.
“When you’re thinking about moving to California, you’re thinking about the beaches and the weather,” says Mr. Schkade, a management professor at the University of California at San Diego. “But you aren’t thinking about the fact that you’ll still be spending a lot of time in the grocery store or doing chores. People emphasize differences that are easy to observe ahead of time and forget about the similarities.”
When we predict what will make us happy, we’re also influenced by how we feel today. If we buy the weekly groceries just after we’ve had lunch, we will shop much more selectively. The downside: A few days later, we will be staring unhappily into an empty refrigerator.
Maybe most important, we fail to anticipate how quickly we will adapt to improvements in our lives. We think everything will be wonderful when we move into the bigger house. We don’t realize that, after a few months, we will take the extra space for granted.
Experience should help us avoid repeating such mistakes. But it doesn’t, in part because we don’t accurately recall how we really felt, says Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.
One example: We work devilishly hard to get that next promotion, because we’re sure it will leave us elated. We forget that, when we last got promoted, it was a bit of a letdown.
With any luck, just knowing we are susceptible to these pitfalls will help.
But you might also try a reality check, Prof. Gilbert says. Suppose you think you will be happier if you move to a small rural town, adopt a child, or quit your job and become a high-school math teacher.
Don’t rely on the opinions of people who live in small towns, have adopted kids or become teachers. Instead, spend some time observing these folks— and see whether they’re happy.
Becoming a teacher “sounds quite romantic,” Prof. Gilbert says. “But hanging around high-school math teachers may quickly disabuse you of that notion .”
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