Stumbling on Happiness

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In 100 Words or Less: Happiness is difficult to define but is a subjective reaction to objective circumstances. When recalling what made us happy yesterday or imagining what will make us happy tomorrow, our brains continue to make the same mistakes. We reconstruct even our most vivid memories from a few, overarching feelings, rather than recalling series of facts. When we can’t change our experience, we subconsciously adapt our view of it. Our minds tend to linger over unusual and unlikely events and we pay special attention to evidence which confirms our prized beliefs. It's difficult to imagine tomorrow and when we try, it looks too much like today.

  • We all want to be happy. We are far more alike than we are different, and happiness is perhaps the strongest and most influential of our shared drives. As Freud put it:
  • “”The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. … We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and displeasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.” — Sigmund Freud

  • It’s difficult to define happiness. Happiness is a subjective experience; a feeling. We all may feel “happy” for any number of reasons, but each of these feelings has something in common, generating similar patterns of neural activity. As much as we can’t define it, we know it to be real and important.
  • We don’t really know what makes us happy, but we behave as if we do. We are the only animal possessing a capacity to imagine the future. This is both a source of strength (we can design a “better” tomorrow) and weakness (we are often mistaken about what will actually make tomorrow “better”).
  • Strictly speaking, memories — even our most vivid and seemingly detailed memories — are recreated and not retrieved. Many studies demonstrate that brains associate primal feelings to events and then go on to reconstruct many of the “factual” details.

    This feature of our brains prevents them from becoming bogged down in irrelevant details, but the problem is that as a consequence, we also forget important details. It’s also possible to remember things, even important things, which didn’t actually happen.

    Our memories are also heavily biased towards unusual (and therefore unlikely) events, first and last experiences and even beliefs about how we must’ve felt about those experiences.

  • “The three-and-a-half-pound meat loaf between our ears is not a simple recording device but a remarkably smart computer that gathers information, makes shrewd judgments and even shrewder guesses, and offers us its best interpretation of the way things are.

    Because those interpretations are usually so good, because they usually bear such a striking resemblance to the world as it is actually constituted, we do not realize that we are seeing an interpretation. Instead, we feel as though we are sitting comfortably inside our heads, looking out through the clear glass windshield of our eyes, watching the world as it truly is.

    We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected. In a sense, each of us is a counterfeiter who prints phony dollar bills and then happily accepts them for payment, unaware that he is both the perpetrator and victim of a well-orchestrated fraud.” — Daniel Gilbert

  • We pay special attention to what we did see, but fail to appreciate the importance of what we did not see. It’s much easier to pay attention to what is in front of us than to notice what’s missing. Without our being aware of it, our minds fabricate some important details and also leave out other important details.
  • Happiness wanes with repetition; pleasure is relative and contextual. The first bite of your favorite pizza will taste better than the tenth and better still than the hundredth. (This is described as “habituation” or “declining marginal utility”.)

    If someone has been wandering the desert for three days, a glass of water will make them much happier than it would a person who is not thirsty.

    The introduction of variety or the passage of time help to make shiny, new things feel shiny and new again.

  • It’s difficult to accurately imagine our long-term futures. When we imagine the future, our brains cannot help but make it look a lot like today. We simply don’t know what we don’t know, so we borrow heavily from the past and present to fill in the blanks.

    Throughout history, many famous, respected scientists failed to predict significant future developments, even a few decades into their futures; the invention of the airplane, microwave ovens or the internet, to name just a few.

    Our inability to identify with our future selves — and the world that your future self will live in — is one reason that so many people have so much trouble saving for their retirement or giving up smoking, no matter how much evidence suggests that they should.

  • Money does buy happiness, but only to a certain extent. Studies generally conclude that someone making $50,000 a year is much happier than someone making $10,000, but surprisingly, only slightly less happy than a person making $5 million. Money doesn’t count for much once basic needs are met, but we tend to continue chasing more of it any way.
  • Some myths about happiness persist because they serve an evolutionary purpose. The pursuit of ever-increasing wealth doesn’t necessarily make an individual happy, but it does serve an economic purpose, which in turn promotes a stable society, which in turn perpetuates the belief that “having things” makes people happy.

    Similarly, many studies conclude that having children actually, objectively reduces the happiness of most parents, but having children also promotes a stable society and so it is in our best interests to continue believing that having children makes us happy.

  • It is necessary to balance our experience of the world, between both “stark reality” and “comforting illusion”; to thrive as human beings, we require some of both. We must see the world clearly enough to participate in it, but hope also drives us to press on in the face of adversity and even to achieve what once seemed impossible.

    Positive thinking is useful to some extent, but it can also drive us to “cook the facts” in support of our most prized beliefs. Confirmation bias explains why people can watch the same controversial replay or presidential debate and come away with two very different views of what actually transpired.

    Because other people are our richest source of information about ourselves, this is one reason that we surround ourselves with people who like us and people who are like us.

  • Negative events — even life-altering events — do not affect many of us as much as we imagine they would. Recent research demonstrates that many people are surprisingly resilient to trauma. While all victims of tragedy do understandably grieve for awhile, only a small minority go on to develop chronic distress. When we perceive a purpose to our suffering, we suffer less.
  • There is no single formula for happiness, but we can avoid making predictable mistakes in our pursuit of it. Becoming aware of the various ways in which our brains mislead us, can help us to make better choices.

    In trying to determine if something will make us happy, we can look to other people in similar positions to show us what it might be like. However, we’re all guilty of accepting advice that we should reject and rejecting advice that we should accept.

    We can’t always believe what other people tell us about their experiences, but we can observe their behavior for clues.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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