If you’re reading the email updates I’ve been writing during the coronavirus crisis, you’re aware of aspects of The Science of Well-Being course I have been sharing in those updates. Professor Laurie Santos, of Yale University, seeks to show us a path to greater happiness with this course. The clinical aspect of the course is fascinating, and it proves that we have the ability to control our happiness more than we think. Through multiple studies, the course identifies the major obstacle to our own happiness: It’s us! Actually, it’s our mind and how we are wired internally, which create certain behavior and perception defaults that lead us astray.
Professor Santos refers to the “annoying features” of the mind that we need to be aware of when seeking maximum happiness. The first annoying feature is that our strongest intuitions are often wrong. Meaning, what we think makes us happy, won’t. The course illustrates data from numerous studies concerning the most common happiness targets, like a good job, money, awesome stuff, true love, good body or good grades. All the studies show that the expectation of our happiness level related to achieving these targets exceeds the reality of our happiness level when we achieve them. That natural tendency is a recipe for disappointment.
Annoying feature number two is that our mind does not think in absolutes. Instead we use reference points. So, relating that to our salaries, we are more likely to be “happy” with our salary based on how it relates to others (co-workers, peers, etc.). One study exemplified this theory starkly. If I told you that more than half the subjects in this study chose a salary of $50,000 versus $100,000, you’d say I’m lying. The additional aspect of the $50,000 choice was that your peers averaged a $25,000 salary. The $100,000 choice included a co-worker average salary of $250,000. Verifying that our happiness (about anything) is greatly influenced by what we are comparing it to.
Other annoying features of our mind also get in the way of our happiness. First, we get used to stuff over time and second we don’t realize it! These features have a major impact on the expectations we set for both negative and positive experiences. Our mind tricks us in to believing the good will be better and the bad will be worse than it actually ends up. Does that make sense to you? Think about a negative expectation you’ve had in the past. Perhaps the fear of doing poorly on a test, a relationship souring or not landing the dream job. When it plays out with those fears being realized, it’s usually not as bad as we expected. We survive and get up the next day and move on. We are very resilient.
As I learn more from this course, I’ll share some of the tools it offers to increase our happiness level. For now, go with the Forrest Gump mentality: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Though you can’t see the future, you know it’s gonna be one type of chocolate or another. Who doesn’t like chocolate?