Happiness and peace of mind have been states many of us have been looking for in some shape or form, so when this came into my mailbox today thought I would share it.
I remember when I was in high school, looking forward to college, I thought independence from my parents, thousands of new people to meet and access to all the arts, shows and parties I could handle would make me the happiest person on the planet. I remember, years earlier, staring at the ashes of half of my family’s house – the half containing my room and all my belongings.
College was good. After a while, though, it was kind of average. As for all of my possessions burning up, a year later it was only a curious fact from my past. Many researchers have found that people significantly overestimate the emotional impact of both positive and negative future events. Dan Gilbert, a leading researcher in this area, cites the dramatic study of a group of people that have won the lottery and a group of people who have become paraplegic; a year later, both groups are equally happy.
Art Markman, in a Psychology Today blog, cites other studies in which people were asked to anticipate how they would feel upon receiving high or low scores on an intelligence test. Those who anticipated their emotional response worked harder, longer and felt more confident about their achievement than people who did not anticipate the test’s emotional outcome.
These results form a curious paradox, in which anticipating happiness can lead us to achieve what we think will make us happy, but when we achieve it, there’s no serious or long-lasting impact. What can we do to find happiness, then? Well, according to this paradox, we can’t do anything. On the other hand, as soon as we view happiness as a state of being instead of an accomplishment, the conflict disappears. Of course we can rush around doing things and never be happy, because nothing external translates into internal contentment.
These odd study results have been anticipated for thousands of years by many spiritual traditions. The writer of Ecclesiastes writes about the vanity of accomplishment and our inability to anticipate the future. Eastern meditation focuses on learning to be “present.” Happiness is something we are or we are not, in the present moment. It has to do with the things we choose to believe or to focus on, with the stories we tell ourselves, with our ability to avoid worrying about the future or hanging our hopes on a later day.
Take a deep breath. Savor the moment. Nothing will make you much happier or much less happy than you are right now.
For more information, watch a presentation by Dan Gilbert or read Art Markman’s blog.