Wouldn’t it be great to have 2 million dollars? Wouldn’t it be great if your child won the science fair? Wouldn’t it be great to have that degree you’ve been working toward or that promotion you’ve been coveting?
If those are your goals then yes, achieving them would probably make you happy. But how long would that happiness last?
Previously I have written about impact bias, which states that we correctly predict how an outcome will make us feel, but tend to misjudge the intensity and duration of that feeling. In general, we overestimate the impact.
This is due to our psychological immune system which keeps us in a relatively narrow range of emotional intensity. When something occurs that takes us too high or too low, we get back to our equilibrium fairly quickly.
So is there a way to maximize our own happiness - that brings more of it than reaching our goals? I’m glad you asked.
Who's Cryin' Now
I used to frequent an online fan forum of my favorite college football team. Historically, the team had never had a great deal of success, but several years ago they moved into the upper echelons of the sport and were being mentioned as a contender for the national championship.
A fan from another team which had been in that top tier for some time and had won several national championships, posted on our site. He gave us a cautionary warning: be careful what you wish for. It was not a threat but a perspective from a fan whose team had achieved the status we were hoping our team would reach.
His advice was to enjoy the ride. He said that the rise to the top was a thrilling blast! It was a ton of fun and satisfying when they reached the top. But once they got there, he lamented, it wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Why? Because now there were higher expectations. Winning for them now felt like a foregone conclusion. If they lost, it was miserable. Fans would explode in anger and deride the coach, the players, and probably the water boy to boot. Anything but winning another championship felt like a failure.
Wheel in the Sky
The day-to-day experience of being on an upward trajectory actually brought more happiness than being at the top. So the old saying is true - it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Would having two million dollars make you happy? For most of us, yes. But the “woo-hoo!” level of happiness would not be as lasting nor as intense as you anticipate, due to the psychological immune system.
In contrast, the feeling that you are moving toward your goals brings you a steady stream of happiness over time. You see the higher plane you aspire to and know that you are making progress toward it. That kind of happiness gives you a deeper sense of well-being and helps create a more positive general outlook.
Imagine you surpassed your goal of $2 million and reached $4 million. Then imagine that your financial status went into decline. When you fell to $3 million you would not be jumping for joy, even though that would be objectively be better than the $2 million that had previously made you ecstatic.
Any Way You Want It
The key is to:
1) Set long-term goals that will make you happy. (Be sure they align with your core values or that happiness will feel hollow in the long-term.)
2) Keep those long-term goals in mind every day.
3) Spend most of your time and energy moving toward those goals. Some days are better than others and sometimes we find ourselves moving in the wrong direction. You know what you want – keep after it.
4) When you reach a high-level goal, make sure your next goal is in place and that it is realistic and also in line with your values.
Don't Stop Believin'
Remember - don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Evaluate the failure, learn from it, and figure out how to get back on track. Dwelling on our screw-ups and setbacks only reduces our positive energy and drive to keep moving.
Unfortunately, my favorite team’s rise to near-the-top was short-lived and they are back among the mere also-rans. But that’s okay because it means another fun journey could be right around the corner.
Think well and be well!
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