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Focussing on Happiness (Part 2)

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

In the last blog inspired by the Yale Science of Wellbeing Course, I was sharing some of the things that we might think make us happy, but in fact don't! It begs the question... Why on earth do we think certain things will make us happy when it is demonstrably evidenced that they don't? Fortunately, Professor Laurie Santos, the curator of the course offered us four explanations:

  1. Our mind’s strongest intuitions are often totally wrong

  2. Our minds judge relative to reference points

  3. Our minds are built to get used to stuff

  4. We don’t realise that our minds are built to get used to stuff

Shepard Table Visual Illusion

Annoying Feature Number 1 is a beautiful peculiarity which I am sure we've all had fun with at some point or another. It is very simply, that our intuitions are often playing tricks on us. Our brains are wired for efficiency and patterns, very often this can mean that we're making shortcuts on what we're seeing or how we're feeling. Illustrated by the Shepard Table visual illusion. Whilst both table tops look entirely different, they are in fact exactly the same! This is true also with the things we want. Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and author of 'Stumbling on Happiness' coined the term Miswanting. We have intuitions of thinking that getting lots of money, love, beauty of getting the latest gadget will make us happy, but in fact, these things do not make us any happier.

Annoying Feature Number 2 is that our brains make sense of the world by comparing things. Our brain constantly look for reference points in order to understand things. Again, this can be illustrated by an optical illusion. Which orange circle looks bigger? Whilst in fact they're exactly the same, our brain tricks us as it is judging the size relative to the black dots that surround it. This applies as much to our happiness as it does to our vision. A study of 5,000 British workers asked people to rate their job satisfaction. If the same workers were then told that co-workers earn more, job satisfaction plummets (Clark & Oswald 1996). This phenomena is particularly relevant to social media. Numerous studies have demonstrated that your use of Facebook has an inverse correlation with your happiness, ie the more you use Facebook, the less happy you are likely to be. (r=-0.2, Vogel et al 2014). Even more interesting is that our brain is unhelpfully selective about how it chooses to use reference points. Looking at Facebook again, it seems our brains are most interested in upwardly comparing ourselves. So, when we look at Facebook, we make upward comparisons and our self esteem takes a hit. Sadly, when that's flipped and we make a downward comparison, there's no significant impact to our self esteem. (Vogel et al 2014) Don't you just love our brain?!

Annoying Feature Number 3 is that we have an incredible capacity to build psychological immunity to things. Ever been excited about getting a new car, house or phone? Ever noticed how once you get it, it's just kind of normal? Weirdly, the material things we often want the most, stick around for a long time so we get used to them. As mentioned in the first blog, this is also true of finding the love of your life... After the first couple of years, you get used to them being around, so there's no discernible difference in the happiness of those who are married vs not married. We should however feel immensely grateful for this psychological immunity as it also serves to boost our resilience. When bad stuff happens, we can adapt as we get used to it and it becomes the new normal. I mean, if someone were to have told me in January that I would be under house arrest pretty much for 3 months without being able to see my friends, I imagine that I would be pretty gutted, but along comes Covid, I haven't had the chance to see my friends and give them a hug and yet... I've adjusted. I still feel happy and content.

Annoying Feature Number 4 is that even though we experience this psychological immunity all of the time, we forget our amazing capacity to adjust when we're invited to think about the future. Even though we're now used to our iPhone 11, we're excited about the 12 coming out in September. We just don't remember that we'll get used to it and adjust our expectations accordingly.

For the next blog, I'll share some of the cool things I've learnt from the course on how to counteract the above annoying features as we plot a road map to happiness!

Thanks for reading! If you too would like to do the course, it's free, interesting and an excellent way to remind ourselves about what's important in life!

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