I love articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal entitled “No Satisfaction: Why What You Have Is Never Enough”. . . [read]
We may have life and liberty. But the pursuit of happiness isn’t going so well.
As a country, we are richer than ever. Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier than they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren’t very good at figuring out what will make us happy.
We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks — and, initially, such things boost our happiness. But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we’re yearning for something else.
Similarly, we tell our friends that our kids are our greatest joy. Research, however, suggests the arrival of children lowers parents’ reported happiness, as they struggle with the daily stresses involved.
Which raises the obvious question: Why do we keep striving after these things?
If you’re not a Wall Street Journal reader, you won’t get to read the rest of the article, but the reasons fall into a couple of different categories
We’re strivers. Happiness is a very appealing notion. After all, our founding fathers were the first and only people to lay down that we have an inalienable right to at least pursue it. But it’s the pursue part that gets us every time. If you believe in evolution, then you need to remember that we’re wired to strive and to procreate, not to be happy. That’s why we don’t live in caves anymore. That’s why there are 6 billion of us.
We’re lousy forecasters. Another way of saying this is that the grass always looks greener on the other side. It may in fact be greener, but it won’t always be, and who says greener will make us happier anyway? Famous economists Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade did a study on this phenomenon. Here’s what the WSJ had to say about the results . . .
They asked university students in the Midwest and Southern California where they thought someone like themselves would be happier — and both groups picked California, in large part because of the better weather. Yet, when asked how satisfied they were with their own lives, both groups were equally happy.
“When you’re thinking about moving to California, you’re thinking about the beaches and the weather,” says Mr. Schkade, a management professor at the University of California at San Diego. “But you aren’t thinking about the fact that you’ll still be spending a lot of time in the grocery store or doing chores. People emphasize differences that are easy to observe ahead of time and forget about the similarities.”
When we predict what will make us happy, we’re also influenced by how we feel today. If we buy the weekly groceries just after we’ve had lunch, we will shop much more selectively. The downside: A few days later, we will be staring unhappily into an empty refrigerator.
Maybe most important, we fail to anticipate how quickly we will adapt to improvements in our lives. We think everything will be wonderful when we move into the bigger house. We don’t realize that, after a few months, we will take the extra space for granted.
Take none of this as an indictment of striving, dreaming, or wanting. Just be careful with the conceit that having some new thing or experience will result in some new permanent state of elevated bliss. It won’t. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is.