I think most people would say that finding happiness is one of their biggest goals in life. You can see this reflected in the amount of money people spend on books, seminars and talks all promising to help you find a happier way of living. The pursuit of happiness was even written into the US Declaration of Independence.
There are some people who can find happiness just a little better than others. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to get. Happiness is an abstract concept; not something you can easily buy off the shelf in a store. Plus, there’s a little quirk about human nature that makes finding happiness harder than it should be.
The Nature of Happiness Seeking
That little quirk of human nature is called the impact bias. It’s the way people overestimate their predictions about the length and intensity of future feeling states. Since happiness is a feeling, it falls under this bias. Basically it means people aren’t good at figuring out what to do in order to make themselves happier for long periods of time.
For example, if you wanted to become happier would you rather win the lottery or become a paraplegic? I’m sure most of you would pick winning the lottery. And for a short time, you would be right. Lottery winners do get an initial burst of happiness, but it doesn’t last. According to one study, happiness levels for both lottery winners and paraplegics eventually go back to their previous levels. Given enough time for both lottery winners and paraplegics and you’ll find that their happiness levels remained unchanged.
Back to the New Normal
I think a lot of people genuinely expect that winning the lottery will make them happy. And that expectation comes directly from the impact bias. Most people only think about the positives of winning and don’t consider everything else that might happen as a result of all that money.
There’s a reason lottery winners and paraplegics eventually revert back to their initial level of happiness. They adapt to their new way of life. The burst of happiness you get from all that money or the intense sadness of losing mobility eventually becomes normal for you. In other words, you get used to it.
No matter how happy you become after winning the lottery, eventually that excitement is going to wear off. You’re left with a lot of money you can use to buy all new pleasures, but it decreases some pleasures you had before. Similarly, becoming a paraplegic can deprive you of some pleasures, but make more mundane activities more valuable and pleasurable.
Despite what you might expect, neither event really increases or decreases the amount of pleasure you receive in life. All they do is shift where your pleasure comes from. Once that shift has taken full effect, you go back to your previous level of happiness and start from where you left off.
You Can’t Predict Happiness
Because everyone is affected by the impact bias, it makes it very hard to predict what will make you happier. And it doesn’t just apply to winning the lottery. Whatever you’re doing now that you think might increase your happiness in the future might not have the positive impact you’re expecting it to have.
It’s not hard to see the impact bias happening around you. How many people have you met that mistakenly thought their career paths would bring them happiness? Many sports fans who see their teams win big games are often not as happy as they expected to be.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to make yourself happier. People can actively do things to make themselves much happier. What the impact bias means is that it isn’t as easy to make yourself happier as you would expect. It’s a stumbling block on the way to discovering your own happiness.
I think the secret to finding happiness is in experimentation. Work towards something you think will make you happy and see if it actually has a long term positive effect on your happiness. You might find a lot of things that won’t make you happy, but eventually you‘ll find some that do. Because of the impact bias, it might take a lot of trial and error to get there.
Make Yourself Happier
Being unable to predict what will really bring you happiness makes finding it much harder. After all, how are you suppose to know what path will really make your life better? But if you’re like me, you’ve made discovering what makes you happy one of your top priorities. Now at least I know you have to try harder than winning the lottery.
Have you ever overestimated what you thought would make you happier? What do you think makes people happy?
photo credit: Camdiluv ♥