With a fixed happiness “baseline,” what’s the point in trying?
April 15, 2011 13 Comments
One of the most striking findings from the booming new field of happiness research has been that people have fairly sticky baselines. With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them — even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people’s reported happiness up or down for a limited time, before they start to drift back to their baseline. (Dan Gilbert is one of the leading happiness researchers right now; I highly recommend his book, Stumbling on Happiness. Here’s a NY Times review of it that discusses some of the relevant issues.)
That leads to a puzzling question: If people seem to end up just as happy when things don’t go as they wished, then why knock ourselves out striving for the outcomes we think will make us the happiest? Why not just shrug and say “que sera, sera,” abandoning our pursuit of our goals, on the reasoning that we’re going to end up roughly as happy no matter how things turn out?
Giving up certainly seems like a bad idea, intuitively. But how do we reconcile that with the evidence? I’ve been able to come up with three possible reasons why it’s still a good idea to keep striving for happiness despite the empirical evidence that it doesn’t make much difference:
(1) It’s possible that the people who say they’re equally happy even though their circumstances seem objectively worse are not, in fact, equally happy. That is, maybe they have lowered their expectations of what maximum happiness is, so that even when they rate their happiness an “8” their scale is actually squished compared to the scale of better-off people who rate their happiness an “8”. Illustration:
So let’s say Person A seems to be worse-off than person B, but they both rate their happiness an 8. Well, person A’s 8 is roughly equivalent to person B’s 5.5, but person A doesn’t know it because she thinks the maximum level of happiness possible is roughly what person B would consider a 7.
(2) It’s also possible that the reason why the people who didn’t get what they wanted are just as happy, on average, as the people who did get what they wanted, is that a lot of people are wanting the wrong things. If you reason more carefully than the average person does about what’s going to make you happy, then it makes sense that when you get what you’re pursuing you actually will be happier than other people are when they get what they were pursuing. For example, I am pretty confident that I wouldn’t be much happier with an income of $200,000 than I would be with an income of $60,000. The evidence suggests that’s true of most people, and yet most people don’t realize it — so there are a lot of people out there making sacrifices for a higher income that isn’t actually making them happier.
(3) There’s a lot of evidence that your happiness immune system (the one that convinces you you’re happy even though you didn’t get what you want) only kicks in when you’re stuck, when you don’t have any chance of changing the situation anymore. For example, in one of Gilbert’s studies, he allowed photography students to choose one of their photos to turn into a framed print. Half of them were given the option to change their mind later; the other half were told their choice was final. The latter group was significantly happier with their choice than the former group.
Or to use another of Gilbert’s examples:
“The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped. This is the difference between dating and marriage, right? I mean, you go out on a date with a guy, and he picks his nose; you don’t go out on another date. You’re married to a guy and he picks his nose? Yeah, he has a heart of gold; don’t touch the fruitcake. Right? You find a way to be happy with what’s happened.”
Knowing you have the option to switch means that you’re always wondering if the grass might be greener on the other side of the hill; having no option to switch means your natural happiness immune system kicks in and reassures you that, no, the grass probably wasn’t greener over there anyway. So if I were to give up striving for any particular outcome, my back-up system might not kick in, because I would always have the uncomfortable knowledge that I could improve things if I tried.