We’re taking a bit of a departure from our normal blog posts to talk about happiness. As humans, we want to be happy, and we can say whether we are or not, but can it really be defined, studied and measured? And can we use this learning to become happier?
What is happiness? Humans are continually searching for it and trying to obtain it, our deepest desires are to be happy. As a company, we stand for positivity, but we wanted to dig deeper and really define this. Defining happiness can seem as elusive as achieving it.
A hypothetical question was posed; who do you think would be happier - a man who lost his legs one year ago or a man who won a lottery jackpot one year ago? Surprise! The man who is paraplegic and the man who won the jackpot are equally happy. Don’t worry about failing the pop quiz, everyone does. One thing that is for sure, happiness is not feeling good all the time.
Humans have a marvelous adaptation, our frontal lobes and pre-frontal cortexes can similar the future before it happens. We can have experiences in our heads before we try them out in real life. If you touch a hot stove, you know exactly what will happen. It will burn and you will be hurt. This adaptation has been such an important part in our evolution that our ancestors didn’t have, right up there with our opposable thumbs, language skills, and the ability to stand upright.
When you think about happiness, what comes to mind? A romance or relationship, promotion at work, achieving a weight loss goal? There is data to prove that these large life events have less impact than you would expect. With only a few exceptions, research suggests things that happened over 3 months ago have no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
Why would such important life events have no impact on your happiness just 90 days down the road? Happiness can be synthesized. You can change your own view of the world so you can be happier with your surroundings. Humans have the amazing ability to synthesize happiness, yet we still think happiness is a thing we can search for and find.
To explore this a little further, let’s look at the Free Choice paradigm. People in a study were shown 6 objects and asked to rank them in order of how much they liked them. At the end, the participants were told that they were allowed to take a few extra objects they had in the back, they always happened to be their #3 and #4 ranked items. Most people picked the item they ranked as #3 because they liked it just a little better, although neither were specifically preferred. Sometime later, the same participants were asked to rank the same items again. This time, the one they picked as is liked a bit better, it moved from spot #3 in their rank up to #2, while the one they didn’t pick moved from spot #4 in their rank down to #5.
This same test was given to people with certain types of amnesia, they aren’t able to form new memories. The data collectors left and came back to the amnesia patients 30 minutes later to do the same experiment. The patients didn’t remember the data collector nor recognize the objects they ranked just 30 minutes earlier.
The test with normal controls showed the people without a memory issue preferred the object they picked and the one the left behind is not as good as they originally thought. Surprisingly, the people with amnesia showed the same results, even though they didn’t know they owned their selected object. The people with amnesia showed synthesized happiness, and it’s genuine happiness because they don’t even know they picked the object they now own.
What can be concluded from all of this? Genuine freedom brings more happiness. When we are able to choose a variety of futures before us and we select the one we think we’ll most enjoy, we are happier. However, our psychological immune system makes it so that a forced choice is the enemy of natural happiness. When you are totally stuck and absolutely cannot change something, and that makes sense. We all want choices and to be in some control of our futures.
We want to have free will. Our brains lead us to pursue one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference in our options, we’re at risk. When our ambitions are bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambitions are unbounded, it leads us to sacrifice things of real value.
The lesson to leave with is that our longings and worries are, to some degree, overblown. We have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing. You have the ability to control how you feel—and with consistent practice, you can form life-long habits for a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
This post references a variety of respected sources as they achieve to study happiness: