You don’t know what makes you happy

If you could fast-forward to any moment in time what would it be?

Happiness is a strange thing. For a society full of happiness-seekers, we are actually terrible at knowing what will make us happy. Psychological research says that we are bad at estimating how much a bad event will decrease our happiness (we overestimate) and we ignore duration in assessing how happy an event made us (meaning we can rate an enjoyable 1 minute massage as making us just as happy as a 1 hour massage). We use all of this to then go forward and make surprisingly inaccurate decisions about our future happiness.

I remember the Christmas I wanted nothing more than a Password Journal. For those of you who aren’t familiar, a Password Journal is basically a notebook inside this plastic contraption that had voice recognition, so you had to speak the correct password to it in order to access the journal. This was the early 2000’s, when voice recognition was in its infancy, and I wanted a Password Journal more than anything else.

Well Christmas arrived, and I received the beloved Password Journal. Shortly, however, I found that it was not all it was cracked up to be. As I said, this was early in voice recognition, and the voice recognition wasn’t so accurate in said Password Journal. Quickly frustrated with the journal’s failure to recognize my password, what was supposed to be a quick spoken word into my magical journal turned into hours of me angrily yelling “Rockstar. Rockstar! ROCKSTAAAAAAAAAAR!”

Needless to say, my estimation of what would make me happy and how happy I actually was were far from close. I think we all have moments like that. We put all of our eggs in the basket of a vacation, social event, or life change; sometimes it lives up to all of our expectations and brings us great happiness…and other times it doesn’t.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t look forward to big life events because they’ll be disappointing anyway?

No. It’s not that we overestimate the happiness events like marriages and births and graduations will bring us, but that the happiness we assume these events will give us relative to random moments causes us to overlook seemingly insignificant moments of total bliss.

Yes, the vacation to Cancun can give us total happiness, but so could a last-minute lunch date with an old friend, or a great afternoon reading a book we haven’t had the time to enjoy. We seem to “budget in happiness” for events that are obviously happy, like the wedding day or the first promotion, but when we look at our lives on a large scale, it’s a little harder to place a happiness value on moments unplanned or unanticipated. There are so many wonderful small moments in life that can bring us unimaginable joy. You might look forward to the moment of graduating college, but by skipping to that you might be skipping the moment your parents tell you how proud they are, the moment you really realize all that you’ve accomplished.

So, let me go back to the original question: if you could fast-forward to any moment in time, what would it be?

I’d just press play, because if I couldn’t unlock a Password Journal at the age of 7, I probably can’t unlock the secret to happiness.

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