Shane: We put a ton of effort and energy into being happy, and yet so few of us actually seem happy. Why not? What misconceptions do we have about happiness?
Laurie: I think it’s important to start with this idea that we put so much effort in, because I think you could sometimes think about happiness, “Oh, we’re all not feeling so happy. And that’s because we’re not trying. We need to try more.” I think that’s not the problem. I think people are putting tremendous energy into the kinds of things that they think are going to make them feel good, feel successful, would lead to a meaningful life. But then, even though we’re putting in so much effort, we’re not getting anywhere. I think the issue is that our minds, the way I like to talk about it on the podcast is that our minds lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy. We have these strong intuitions that if this would happen, I would be happily ever after. If I have the perfect job, or if I get a higher salary, or if I get a certain accolade at work, if I become partner, or from my students if I get perfect grades. People think if those things happen that they’ll feel happier. And you know, there’s studies that look at people who get those wonderful things, and yeah, you get a little happiness boost for a little while but it doesn’t seem to last. Lasting happiness comes from something else. So the problem isn’t that we’re not working at it, it’s that we have these misconceptions about the kinds of things that are really going to make us feel better. But you know, we need some work to figure out the right sorts of things that will make us feel good.
Shane: So the way that I think of people like this, I call them “happy if,” or “happy when” people, because they’re not happy in the moment. They’re happy when… “When I get a promotion, when I get a relationship, when I get a new car, when I get a new house, I’ll be happy then.” Why is it that we never seem to be happy when that happens?
Laurie: This is a bias that researchers call “arrival fallacy.” It’s really like the “happy ever after” fallacy. When this happens, I’ll be happy. And you know, it’s not like we’re mis-predicting. You get a new house and, yeah, that feels good, but it doesn’t feel as good as you’re going to think. And it doesn’t feel good for as long as you’re going to think. These are errors in what we call “affective forecasting.” You’re forecasting that you’re going to be way happier, but we’re off about the intensity. It’s not as good as we predict, usually. And we’re off about the duration. It doesn’t feel good for as long as we tend to predict. That means we’re setting ourselves up for some disappointment, and I think this is the kind of thing that happens for the “I’ll be happy when…” kind of people. It’s like, “I’ll be happy when I get a promotion,” and then you get the promotion, you’re like, “Well, that didn’t work.” I guess I need another promotion. This happens a lot with salary. I’ll be happy if I get a raise, I’ll be happy if I get this amount of money, and you get there and you don’t get as happy as you thought. And you don’t think, “Well, I was wrong. It wasn’t salary. I should go for something else.” You think, “It wasn’t enough money. If I get the next promotion, and the next promotion,” and it’s one thing to think this if you’re earning an average American income, but what’s funny is, even if you look at incredibly wealthy people they have the same mistaken intuitions about money. On my podcast, The Happiness Lab, I interviewed this great guy, Clay Cockrell, who’s a wealth psychologist. He’s a mental health professional that works with the rich and famous. First of all, shocking is that he has a job, right? Based on our misconceptions, the incredibly wealthy should have no mental health problems, but they have a ton. One of the biggest ones he sees is exactly this, these wealthy folks thought, “When I become a millionaire, then I’ll be happy.” Then that didn’t work. You’re like, “Well, maybe I need in the tens of millions. I need to be able to buy multiple vacation houses.” Or for people he works with in the hundred millions, it’s like, “Well, I guess I have to become a billionaire. Once I can say, I’m a billionaire, then I’ll really be happy.” At no point do they go through these steps and think, “Wait a minute, the last five carrots I put for myself, when I got to the carrot, it didn’t work in the way that I thought. Maybe I’m wrong.” This is our bias of affective forecasting. We get wrong, not the direction, we know good things are going to make us feel good, but we definitely get wrong the intensity and the duration that boost in happiness is going to last.
Shane: Is it because our reference group changes? If you get a promotion, all of a sudden you’re comparing yourself against your new colleagues instead of your old colleagues.