If happiness is liking what we've got, I should tell you in all fairness: This is not what my backyard looks like.
If happiness is liking what we’ve got, I should tell you in all fairness: This is not what my backyard looks like.

It’s not that we’ve got to work hard to like what we already have and that will make us happy – though perhaps that’s a thought worth exploring – but Dan Gilbert says that we’re hard-wired to make the best out of what we’ve been given.

He’s a psychologist and happiness expert over at Harvard and he gave a really fine TED talk based on his book, “Stumbling on Happiness”. It’s 21 minutes long and really worth your time. The most eye-opening bit that came from his research is this train of thought: What we imagine will make us wildly happy will always wear off. What we imagine will make us terrifically unhappy will always wear off. And then we’ll come back to our baseline. If the wonderful thing happens, we’ll get philosophical about how it didn’t solve all our problems. If the terrible thing happens, we’ll put it in perspective and grow from the experience. And we’ll report being happy either way.

Imagining the Future

I’ve certainly noticed in my own life that the wanting of a thing can be intense. I can some how manage to put all my hopes for future happiness, joy, peace and tranquility into wanting a single thing. If I could just have that one thing, I’d be set. It would all be downhill from there. An example? Take matching living room furniture, for instance – it’s rather mundane, but there you go. Right now, I really want matching living room furniture. (True.) And sometimes I’m passionately wanting it. I’m imagining it. I’m planning for it. I’m figuring out the easiest way to make really gorgeous slipcovers that might, you know, coordinate. Heck, I just made a set of throw pillows based on a color scheme that hasn’t really come to life in the rest of the room yet. The wanting is intense. I can admit it.

And yet there is so much underneath the simple wanting. For me it’s all unconscious until I start really examining it closely. Sure, matching living room furniture would be really nice. Aesthetically pleasing, even. But then I start digging down deeper. I realize I’ve pinned a ridiculous amount of hope on obtaining a set of items, that while nice, isn’t what I’ve made it out to be. I imagine, strangely, that my life really will be so much better if I can just have this thing. And yet… matching living room furniture is not my key to enlightenment. And when I remember that, I can use that tiny bit of (perhaps obvious) insight as a key to the rest of my life.

Matching living room furniture is not my key to enlightenment.
A basket full of finished knitting projects is not my key to enlightenment.
A perfect relationship with all my family members is not my key to enlightenment.
The perfect job is not my key to enlightenment.
Continuing to be mistaken for a twenty year old is not my key to enlightenment.
Losing 80 pounds is not my key to enlightenment.
Managing to get my cats to live in peace with one another is not my key to enlightenment.

But you know, time and time again I think that this time it might be. And of course the list goes on.

And when I get that thing, as I quite often do? Well, I haven’t reached perfect happiness yet, and I’m beginning to believe that in fact, there isn’t a single thing out there – not even winning the power ball, though I’ve got plans if it happens – that is going to make me happy.

Getting What You Want, versus… not.

One of the things that Dan Gilbert has found is that when we have options we’re significantly less happy about our choices than when we realize that –boom!– the door has closed on our options and we’re left with this. Whatever this is. Sometimes we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted. Sometimes we haven’t. But when we think that there is time to change our mind and choose something better, even when we’ve got what we wanted, we’re less happy with it. And when we’re out of options?

We’re hardwired to live with it, and be happy.

…Now, as I think of this, I realize that there’s more that just a little bias from having all of this research and observation occur in a highly developed nation where options exist in abundance and basic necessities and human rights are largely taken care of and observed. But it is still food for thought, isn’t it?

Post #2 in series on Happiness.