forecasting happiness – mind the gap?
I recently stumbled upon The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, Jon Gertner’s 2003 New York Times article where he explores what happens when three psychologists and an economist join forces to deconstruct happiness and examine it from whence it begins — as a decision-making process. Their study looks at how our existence is fueled by an on-going stream of decisions — from the minute to the major — based on our repeated attempts to make a basic prediction: Will this make me happy or unhappy?
I’ll cut to the chase: We humans SUCK at predicting what will make us happy. And as I apologize for using a crass word to summarize an erudite study, I need to use it again because we don’t just suck, apparently we SUCK REPEATEDLY.
Our lousy forecasting combined with our tendency to repeat bad decisions — within almost identical contexts and in variations on a theme — is so strong it may seem like we’ve stepped into the movie Groundhog Day . . . without Bill Murray to make us laugh.
The research team also found that shining light on the decision-making process didn’t empower people. In fact, it yielded a “does it really matter anyway” vibe because happiness quotients were eerily similar no matter what decisions were made.
Depressing? Potentially. But the eternal optimist in me is most attracted to psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory on why becoming better forecasters wouldn’t necessary be better for the human race. He wonders if “maybe the illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other are what we need to motor us through life.”
If what Gilbert calls our “caricatures of the future,” these “overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be,” make us passionate, resilient and driven to care about decision-making, maybe there’s a yet-undefined reason for our inability to accurately predict how much happiness a decision will deliver. Would we rather be a bit happier thanks to more on-target predictions but resigned to an It won’t really make a difference philosophy that makes apathetic shrugs the norm?
I may not be great at forecasting happiness, but I believe being able to recognize the nuances of its presence in my everyday life is what propels me.
I don’t see happiness as an explosion of joy or an unwavering state of being, but an extension of gratitude that fuels so much in my life, including my ability to make decisions about the things that matter most.