How to be happy – whether or not you get what you want

This 21-minute talk by Dan Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness I recently reviewed, is worth watching or listening to. Or get the gist from my summary, below.

In essence:

Different outcomes aren’t so different when it comes to happiness

Outcomes have less impact in both intensity and duration than you’d expect. There’s not much happiness-producing difference between such outcomes as gaining/losing a partner, or getting/not getting a promotion. Research shows:

  • A year after winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, both groups are equally happy with their lives.
  • About 3 months after a change (except extremes) there’s negligible impact on happiness.

(This tendency to adapt to life changes is also discussed in 101 Happiness Strategies: How to be happy – 9. Get off the hedonic treadmill.)

Why is there little difference in happiness between outcomes?

Natural versus synthetic happiness

‘Natural’ happiness follows from getting what you want. But happiness can also be synthesised – we have cognitive processes that help us make the most of the worlds we find ourselves in. Whichever outcome we end up with, we tend to retrospectively rate it as the better one.

Some things are better than others

That’s not to say we shouldn’t  have preferences – we should, for instance, prefer a trip to Paris over surgery. But it’s when we overrate the difference between possible outcomes and let ourselves be driven too hard by our preferences, that we risk bad behavior, recklessness and cowardice, and become vulnerable to remorse and shame. 

Don’t worry, be happy

Gilbert final lesson to us is:

Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

In other words, don’t worry too much.

Whatever happens, if you let yourself, you will be happy.

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