Decision making is at the heart of our performance and determines our success in life. Almost all of our conscious decisions have the same goal - to maximize our happiness (and minimize our misery). Of course, what “happiness” means can vary from person to person and we may decide to sacrifice short-term happiness for longer lasting happiness. Generally speaking though, we just want to be happy.
That means we have to predict how happy (or miserable) a decision or outcome will probably make us. As it turns out, we’re not very good at predicting the future - even about how we will feel.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness was one of my favorite reads of the past several years. He provides fascinating insights into the thoughts and subconscious impulses that go into our predictions of our future feelings. Below are some of the ideas and take-aways I found most valuable.
Is more control a good thing?
Until fairly recently in human history, people had little control over three of the biggest determinants of happiness: where we live, what we do, and who we do it with. People stayed where they were born, did what their parents did, and hung out with others doing the same things in the same place. Who you marry was usually decided for you.
Now we have the ability to live wherever we want and can choose our own professions, friends, and partners. We now get to (or have to) make choices, but how? There is no formula for happiness and no two people derive the same level of happiness from the same objective experience. Gaining a dollar will make someone with no money happier than it would a wealthy person.
So we guess at our future happiness by using a variety of mental tools, many of which give us false information about not only our future feelings but also how accurate our guess is.
Gilbert discusses many of the mental processes that cause us to mis-predict our happiness, but one of the most impactful is the overuse of our memories.
Naturally, we try to repeat good experiences and avoid bad ones, but we often make the same mistakes and create unhappiness for ourselves because our memories are faulty. We don’t remember details, just key elements, and then we fill in the details later. The things we do remember are the events or outcomes that made us happiest or the most unhappy. This causes us to expect those same elevated feelings in the future.
But this ignores our psychological immune system which, when working properly, regulates our extreme feelings and brings us down to an emotional baseline. When an extremely happiness-inducing event occurs, we feel it strongly at first, but our euphoria wanes over time. Same with feelings of unhappiness.
In short, we usually don't end up feeling as happy or unhappy as we thought we would.
We also tend to recall events that happened recently over less recent experiences. Memories, including how we felt at the time, fade.
For example, if I need to decide whether to fly or drive to a meeting that is 400 miles away, I will consider cost, time, convenience, stress and the likelihood of delays of each option. Most of my flying experiences have been relatively smooth, but it just so happens that I had a nightmarish experience with a flight last week which turned into a cascading series of delays that had me sleeping overnight in the airport and getting home a day late.
Even though flying may be the better option this time, the terrible and recent experience looms larger than the many fine past experiences.
Certainty feels like happiness
We shouldn’t rely so much on our memories to predict our future happiness, but we crave certainty. We want to know how we will feel if we choose option A over option B, but the fact is, we often can’t know. So what can we do?
After contemplating the knowledge and wisdom from Stumbling on Happiness, my conclusion is that the best path is to keep your values and priorities top of mind when making decisions. Rather than relying on your brain’s predictive abilities on how you will feel, think about which decision aligns more with your values and your vision of the best version of you.
Then, if it turns out you didn’t get the level of happiness you expected, at least you will feel good about your intention and your decision making process.
Think well and be well.
- Steve Haffner
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