This is the first in a series of posts that explores a question that deserves a lot more attention than it currently gets.
Why don’t we more actively pursue happiness?
- We think hard work and delayed gratification will get us there.
- We think its selfish.
- We think we see the world as it really is.
- We think our happiness should come second.
- We think we’re already as happy as we’re going to get.
Each of these mentalities impedes or distorts our quest to be as happy as we can and want to be.
1. We think hard work and delayed gratification will get us there
- Birth to College: Study even though you hate to. You need to get a good job!
- First Working Years: Get your boss his damn coffee! You need a promotion to pay off your debt and buy that house to impress your friends and family.
- Mid-life: Work, work, work, work! Mid-life crisis? Finding meaning in your work? I don’t think so honey, we need to save for the kids.
- Competitive 50s: Nest egg is too small! Work more!
- Retirement: Have fun, push your boundaries, develop strong social connections, and become genuinely happy?
- Afterwards: Die.
Chicken or Egg – Are Happier People Wealthier, or Wealthier People Happier?
Happier people are 10%-20% more productive, and earn on average $10,000-$30,000 more than their less jubilant peers. See the Warwick University Worker Productivity study here, and the Wesleyan Income study here.
Ambition –> Greater Productivity –> More Money –> More Happiness?
More Happiness –> Greater Productivity –> More Money?
In the income study, the participants were asked questions to rate their happiness in 1979, when they were 14 to 22 years old. This single data point explained thousands of dollars in income disparity over the next 31 years of their life. Don’t mix up the order, it’s happiness first.
2. We think it’s selfish
That looks fun, doesn’t it? Who do you think is having a better time, you, sitting on your chair reading this blog post, or Barney, doing all sorts of ridiculous things?
Let’s be straight, I’m not recommending that you ask yourself:
- Will this lead to sex?
- Is this the tastiest stuff I can put in my mouth?
- Will this lead to maximum comfort?
- Is this the path of least pain and effort?
Barney is probably having more fun, but that doesn’t mean that he’s got more happiness and well being. There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure. According to recent scientific studies, pleasure is one of the least effective sources of life satisfaction and happiness.
Pursuit of meaning and engagement is 12x more correlated with higher life satisfaction than pursuit of pleasure. See the Positive Psychotherapy study by Martin Seligman here.
Meaning and Engagement
Happiness comes from many sources: pleasure certainly, but also from living with meaning, acting according to your values, volunteering, achieving your goals, showing gratitude, having strong social connections, and being engaged with your community. That doesn’t sound selfish to me:
- 29 Ways to Show Unique Gratitude – Showing gratitude is the opposite of selfishness.
- Kindfully + Mindfully – It’s not “Treat others as you’d want to be treated”, but “How you treat others is how you treat yourself.” When you’re kind to others, it’s not just the recipients that have a better day.
- Stoicism 101 - Acting with virtue, it’s not about repressive discipline, but about being 100% proud of yourself.
- Happiness is contagious in social networks – Happiness spreads up to people three degrees removed from each other. A happier world starts with you.
- Voluntarily Happy – Helping others is one of the most effective ways to grow and cultivate happiness. It’s also a good way to develop your social network.
Do these things make you think of the word “selfish”? Not to me.
3. We think we see the world as it really is
As crazy as this kid seems, we deliberately and regularly make choices that lead us towards more pain and less happiness.
When describing our global feelings of a past event, we have the cognitive tendency to remember our feelings at the peak of an experience, positive or negative. We’ll also remember how we felt at the end of the experience. This means we won’t pay attention to how long the experience lasted, and we easily disregard the sum of our feelings over the course of the experience. There are the Duration Neglect and Peak-End cognitive biases -
In one study, participants were told their hands would be immersed in painfully cold water three times. In one trial, one of their hands was immersed in painfully cold water for 60 seconds. For the second trial, their other hand was immersed in painfully cold water for 60 seconds (same as before), and then slightly warmer, but still painful water for 30 more seconds. Clearly, the second trial delivers more pain than the first. Participants were given the choice of which experience to repeat for their third trial. They overwhelmingly chose the longer, more painful trial. Sure, it involved more pain as a whole. But, because it ended slightly less painfully than the other trial, they remembered it as being less painful.
See Why First Impressions Don’t Matter Much for another great example of us just asking for more pain.
Just as we can be pretty bad at remembering how painful an experience was, we can be pretty bad at remembering at how much we enjoyed an experience. Let’s say you already have a son, and are considering having a second:
Thinking about your experience with your son, you remember when he spoke his first word, when he started crawling, when he said ‘dada’, and yesterday, when he walked for the first time! Yes, he also woke you up 374 times in the middle of the night, but that’s OK. Right?
Wrong. The happiness research is clear, parents with kids have less life and marital satisfaction, and less happiness (see a NY Mag feature with some interesting thoughts on the topic here). I don’t agree with the philosophical framework of the research, and will post a full analysis on this later, but the data across numerous studies is clear. Again, I’m not suggesting we not have kids, but having proper expectations can make a world of difference – it can increase satisfaction, reduce stress levels, reduce the indencence of post-postpartum depression, and more.
We base future decisions and expectations on how we or others remember past experiences. Because memory is so fickle, we’re making imperfect decisions and expectations all of the time, some small and some big.
4. We think our happiness should come second
WOW!! We’re almost 1000% richer than we were 100 years ago. Enough already! If our great-grand parents had enough to be happy, we sure as hell do, with electricity, the internet, modern medicine, cellphones, and a thousand others things they didn’t have. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for progress. But seriously, we’ve been in survival mode for far too long.
My parents are from India. If they didn’t work hard and focus as hard as they did on getting a great education and on getting an equally great job, they might not have had food on the table. With little money, they never would have been able to come to America. I never would have been diagnosed and treated for fibromyalgia. I might still be suffering from crippling pain . But that was then. Now, you don’t need to be exceptional to keep yourself fed. Now, you don’t need to graduate summa cum laude to have access to great doctors. Yes, there are problems in the world that only economic growth can fix – I’m not suggesting we all become marijuana puffing hermits. But instead of focusing 90% on making money and 10% on pursuing happiness, I suggest we value the two equally.
Career mediocrity is OK. A teacher making $30,000 a year has enough for himself and his family, and he’s helping others on a daily basis. He has all that he needs to build the foundation of a satisfying life.
Life mediocrity is not OK. An investment banker making $120,000 a year with no time for friends & family and no sense of meaning in his life will not automatically be happier just because he’s making more money.
It’s time happiness entered the conversation.
5. We think we’re already as happy as we’re going to get
If you’re sad, deal with it or go see a shrink. If you’re “normal”, go on living your life as you already have. That’s the mindset of most Americans. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project recalled resistance from all corners of her life when she decided to become a HappierHuman. Her husband didn’t understand the need and her friends thought she was being selfish - “Isn’t having a good husband and two kids enough?”.
But why settle? More happiness = more life, love, satisfaction, productivity, friends, generosity, and more of that amazing, feel-good feeling.
Be grateful for what the world has given you, but make the best of it. Don’t you want more happiness?
Did I miss a reason? Does one of these really resonate with your life? Let me know by leaving me a comment!