Stumbling on Happiness

26 Mar

Why would someone remember fondly the day they went fishing in 28 degree weather with a broken hand and diarrhea? Well, we caught a bunch of fish and had a lot of fun. I remember being very happy.

We took a little detour this past week during the Housley Principled Leadership Program session and spent three hours talking about happiness, contentment, fulfillment, and life satisfaction. Since all of the program participants are planning to become titans in whatever field they choose to pursue, we though it made sense to think about where all of this striving is really going to take us. No one wants to wake up in their fifties and wonder what the hell they have been doing for the past thirty years.

If we are going to follow the instructions of our forefathers and pursue happiness, then we should spend a little time defining it and exploring how to get it. Money seemed to be a big factor in most students’ assessment of what will make them happy, but the evidence says otherwise. Once our basic needs for shelter, sustenance, security and stability are met, more money doesn’t seem to increase our day-to-day contentment (but we did determine that it can buy toys, freedom, experiences and “life satisfaction”.)

The real problem with happiness is that human beings are horrible at judging the things that will make them happy in the future. Using research found in one of my favorite books, Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, we looked at the reasons why we are often unable to predict what will make us happy.

First, humans use past experiences to forecast happiness, but our memories do not serve us well. Our brains remember the good stuff and tend to forget or gloss over the bad (like my fishing experience.) Second, the way we feel in the present affects the predictions we make about the future. Anyone who has ever been grocery shopping on an empty stomach can attest to that. Lastly, we have a tendency to significantly overestimate the impact future events will have on our happiness – both positive and negative. The phrase, “I would be eternally happy if only ______” is almost never true even if “it” happens. The same is true for our ability to deal with tragedy and manufacture happiness afterwards.

I highly recommend reading the book and asking yourself – with the benefit of understanding the inner workings of your brain – whether those things you are striving for are really going to make you happy. The answer may lead you down a completely different path where you may stumble upon some happiness of you own.

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