This weekend’s FT had a great article summarizing the findings of happiness research:
Many of us struggle to find real happiness. Why is that? Studies in psychology suggest that part of the reason is that most of us are very bad at predicting how we’ll react when faced with many of life’s experiences. Consequently, we end up making choices that are potentially harmful to our emotional well-being. According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we tend to overestimate, by a long way, the extent and duration of the emotional impacts of, say, a pay rise, the death of a loved one, or even moving to an area that’s sunny all year round. This is simply because, when we’re trying to imagine how an experience will affect us emotionally, we tend to focus too much of our attention on the most salient features of the experience in question.
In our minds, Los Angeles = sunny weather; money = nice cars and luxurious holidays. In reality, however, the many other less salient features that we often fail to consider will have emotional consequences. Los Angeles, for instance, is actually thousands of miles away from our friends and family; we need to work harder in order to earn more. This explains why happiness often eludes us when we blindly follow our imaginations or what conventional wisdom tells us about what makes us happy.
So where should we look for happiness? New research in psychology and economics suggests the answer lies in what we already have – things like friends and family. The secret to being happy is simply to devote more of our time and attention to these happiness-rich and fulfilling experiences.
As the US rabbi Hyman Schachtel once famously said: “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
We do seem hardwired to base our perception of value in relativistic terms, which definitely pulls us into situations where “keeping up with the Joneses” dictates what we think of as happiness. Turning off that relativistic sensor is quite hard, but if the research is correct it is likely worth the effort.