Today we will explore the challenges to our idea of pursuing happiness.
We all have our own mental habits, some of the ways we think that make it actually hard to pursue, understand or even think about happiness in a more constructive way.
Latest research in neuroscience, psychology, experimental and behavioural economy have helped greatly in explaining human brain activity and individual behaviours. Let’s understand some of the reflexes that might lead us astray or present obstacles in the pursuit of happiness.
The concept of hedonic adaptation, is essentially a fancy way to say “getting used to things”.
This occurs when we think about happiness as pure constant pleasure, always having our needs met, trying to feel pleasure over and over again when our needs are met, or the idea about happiness in the context of pursuing material goods.
Let’s say you get a new car, you’re super happy with it and it makes you feel good, but then you look next door and your neighbours have a fancier car, so you need the next fancy car, until you actually learn that someone has a boat, and then you need a boat. What’s happening here is clear: going up in happiness, but then adapting. Going up in happiness, but then adapting. In all cases you’re bound to an endless pursuit and there is no end to that pursuit.
The good news here is that some researchers, such as Edward Diener at the University of Illinois, have argued that the truth about hedonic adaptation and set points is more nuanced: some of us might be more prone than others to adapt to events, and a person's set point may not be stable over time. Researches have shown and defined research-based methods that suggest how we might counteract our tendency for hedonic adaptation and develop more lasting happiness.
Another concern we end up struggling with in terms of trying to think about pursuing happiness is that sometimes we’re not really great judges of what’s going to make us happy or how long things will make up happy.
This comes from research work by Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, who coined the term "affective forecasting" with his colleague Timothy Wilson.
Affective forecasting is simply "the process by which people look into their future and make predictions about what they’ll like, what they won’t like and about how they’ll feel in the future”.
What happens is that on average, people think that really good events are going to make and keep them happy for a very long time and that really bad events are going to crush them over and over for the unforeseeable future.
But given a “psychological immune system”, as Daniel Gilbert calls it, we actually tend to get over heart-breaking things more rapidly than we predict and to also quickly adapt to those things that we thought were going to be the answer and make us happy for the long run.
Understanding this habit, the idea that we’re inclined toward making predictions about what make us happy that aren’t necessarily true, is important to observe what happens to us from a new perspective.
ACCUMULATION OF THINGS
Another challenge to happiness is relating it to the accumulation of things, that we generally tend to consider as one of major sources of happiness and this is somehow related to the hedonic treadmill discussed earlier. As the research findings of Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University reveal, there’s a great differences in the happiness related to material possessions versus making experiences.
Professor Gilovch asked people to look back at a time when they spent a bunch of money on a thing or on an experience and how happy they were. He asked them a little bit later to rate how satisfied they were with that particular experience or how satisfied they were having spent money on a thing.
Well, it turned out that satisfaction goes down a lot for people who spent their money on material possessions and satisfaction sort of persists in the upward direction, it goes up and increases when people invest in making experiences.
The lesson learned here is that we should better focus on making experiences to boost happiness instead of merely accumulating objects.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
The last obstacle is the way people think about happiness and money. When people are asked what do they think is going to give them happiness, the frequent claim is that money is going to be part of the equation.
Furthermore, the relationship to that statement is the more money there is, the happier they’re going to be: more money, more happiness, more money, more happiness, more money, more happiness.
Nevertheless, what Nobel Prize Daniel Kahneman from Princeton University has discovered by looking at the relationship between money and happiness is that there is indeed an increase in happiness when you think about the income levels that allow people to have their basic needs met. However, once you get to a certain threshold, the so called “line plateaus”, which in his 2010 study was about $75,000 a year ($84,000 in 2016 dollars) happiness doesn’t continue to go up.
This suggests that continually seeking more and more money is not automatically going to persistently increase your levels of happiness.
We have learned today some of the major obstacles in the pursuits of happiness are our own habits of thinking and the expectations we have: to get things, to get money, we worry about how hard challenges in life are going to be, we overrate the effects of positive events and the hedonic treadmill we might be subject to.
These thinking habits make it hard for us to think about happiness in a very realistic way. Understanding some of the obstacles in the way we think about the world and ourselves might make it less harder to pursue happiness and most importantly knowing that’s how we function is helpful as we think about how to really pursue happiness in a more meaningful way.
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