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What Makes Us Happy?

Deciding How to Build a Good Life is Surprisingly Hard
Sandra Aamodt

We believe we are acting in the best interests of our future selves when we marry, get an education, exercise, or put away money for retirement. Yet we may reasonably suspect that they will turn out to be dissatisfied with some of our choices—as we are unhappy with certain decisions of our past selves. Who thought that was a good idea? Well, apparently you did, at the time.

Brains specialize in predicting the future, especially the near future. Animals learn to expect that cues that were associated with the appearance of a snack or a predator last time will predict the same outcome next time. Unlike other animals, though, we humans can use our overdeveloped frontal cortex to imagine our lives into the distant future—a practice that made up 12% of our daily thoughts in one study.

Too bad we’re not very good at it, as you might expect for such a recently evolved ability. The cognitive biases that tilt our visions of possible futures are one reason that we have trouble predicting what will make us happy. For one thing, we are overly optimistic about the likelihood of good versus bad future events, probably because we spend more time fantasizing about positive outcomes.

Researchers have found that our memory is sketchy and unreliable, partly because we fill in many details that our brains haven’t actually stored. Because imagination depends on many of the same brain functions, it too is prone to predictable errors. The details that we fill in when we picture a future scene feel so realistic that it becomes difficult to picture events playing out another way. Thus, instead of believing that we have imagined a possible future, we feel as though we have pictured the future, and we base our predicted future happiness on this belief.

These filled-in details are often taken from our everyday lives. For this reason, our imagination leads us to believe that the future will look a lot like the present, especially in its emotional tone. This bias makes it hard to imagine that we will ever get over our current grief. It is also the reason that you would be unwise to go to the grocery store when you're starving.

Even in a world of perfect information and self-control, we would have to face the philosophical question of what we’re willing to sacrifice now to feel better later. Balancing the needs and wants of our current self against those of our future selves is nearly as hard as negotiating how much we should work to make other people happy. As psychologist Paul Bloom explains, we tend to think about our far-future selves as if they were strangers, which leads us to systematically misunderstand their motives and preferences.

Another hurdle is the basic issue of defining what we mean by happiness. Ancient Greek philosophers introduced two schools of thought that psychologists are still arguing over today. One group believes that happiness is primarily about pleasure, while the other believes it centers on purpose, the belief that your life has meaning and worth to others. In terms of the brain, this distinction might make little difference, as some researchers have claimed. From a practical perspective, though, it matters whether we can best maximize our happiness by playing with kittens or volunteering at the food bank. The focus on pleasure has obscured problems of the elderly in particular, notes psychologist Carol Ryff, who often have trouble maintaining a sense of purpose after retirement. It also interferes with our understanding of cultures like Japan whose concept of happiness focuses less on hedonism and more on contributing to society.

Most self-help books underestimate the difficulty of becoming happier, writes philosopher Dan Haybron. In part, that’s because happiness is social, depending on other people’s actions as well as your own. He adds that fixing serious problems in your life, such as finding a new job or rebuilding a damaged relationship, is the surest but also the hardest way to increase happiness.

Finally, anthropologist Dean Falk asks whether happiness is adaptive. That is, did evolution select for people who were inclined to pursue and experience happiness? She notes that happiness is partly genetic and that it motivates people to set and achieve goals. For those reasons, she concludes that it may have developed under natural selection, rather than simply being a side effect of brain functions that evolved in response to other pressures.

Unless your brain is damaged, it’s extremely hard to resist the pull of the future on your imagination. Anyone who has attempted to meditate knows how much effort is required to keep your mind focused on the present for as little as half an hour. Whatever the uncertainty in our visions of our future selves, we are likely to continue to chart our course in life by these imaginings—at least until someone invents a time machine or a crystal ball.

 

 

 

photo by georgikeith

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