When asked “What makes you happy?” I think about the building blocks that constitute a successful life. From the top of my head, they are things like having a high-paying job at a renowned consulting firm, getting married, and being a travel nomad.
In hindsight, money, love, and leisure are often what we want out of life. Upon graduation from college, we work relentlessly around the clock so that we can afford to settle down with our partners and start a family. We then continue to work for most parts of our lives until we accumulate a basin of financial wealth where we retire our days travelling the world — or any other leisure activities as you may.
Here’s an alternative perspective to the warped idealities of happiness we’ve been living with:
The things we think or have been told that will make us happy, is an illusion. The way we should seek happiness is quite the opposite.
Laurie Renee Santos, a cognitive Scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale, created the course The Science of Wellbeing that mines into new results on how psychological science teaches us ways to be happier, less stressed, and flourish more.
In her teachings, she discussed three concepts and why having a good job, money, and social wants — true love, awesome stuff, the perfect body — does not align with our theory about happiness.
1. A Good Job
If you had to predict your level of happiness on a scale of 1 through 10–1 being the least happy, vice versa, how happy do you think you would be if you did not get the job you wanted? For me, I would cast a vote on the 4th scale.
Dan Gilbert and his colleagues tested this hypothesis across college students. They found that their initial prediction on the students’ drop in happiness level was 2.10, but in reality, it was only a 0.68 point drop. This stark difference defies what our brain imagines how emotionally negative we would feel.
Our desire for a good job is often highly prized that we think it’s the end when we are denied that job opportunity. We tend to associate having a good job with a high salary and thus, a good life because it makes sense that we can finally live in a huge house, purchase a yacht or any other stuff money can buy to quench our thirst for happiness.
Yet, what counts as enough? Professor Santos introduced a study in The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, where people always seek higher levels of salary regardless of one’s earning power. A person earning $30,000 would predict a $50,000 paycheck is enough to lead a happy life. Similarly, such a thinking pattern is true even for people who take home a salary of $250,000.
We seek more than what we already have and can’t have because our needs and wants are insatiable. It is an endless loop we feed our minds with that a good job = a high salary = happiness.
In 2015, the totality of consumer spending on lottery tickets in the U.S. added up to over $70 billion. This is more than the money spent on video games, movies, music, books, and sports tickets — combined.
Psychologically, a ticket that only costs a few bucks doesn’t hurt people’s pockets in hindsight, but purchases were made because people hope to get more money.
Is there, then, a limit to how much more money is enough? A famous scientific study by Danny Kahneman and Angus Deaton showed us that the correlation between life satisfaction and income is indeed apparent in our lives — the higher the income, the higher our life satisfaction, vice versa — but only up until a certain threshold.
When I first saw this piece of scientific study, the only question that occupied my mind was, “How is it possible that with more money, we don’t necessarily become much happier?”. It turns out that at lower levels of income, we basically have just enough to cover our basic survival needs, and at this stage, it is no wonder that we often wish we had more money to buy what we want.
As income substantially increases, money covers everything we want and need. This explains why happiness sort of plateaus at higher income levels.
There is a mismatch between the way we measure our life satisfaction and our emotional wellbeing.
3. Social Wants
We live in an era where we consume a myriad of media content that amass numerous product advertisements from TV commercials to social media. In that sense, we sometimes find ourselves wishing for the possibilities: “I wish I had a Mercedes Benz”, “I wish I had a JBL” or “I wish I had the latest edition of Jo Malone”.
Those are stuff we think are cool that will elevate our levels of happiness. The same reason why we pursue increased wealth is that we predict this awesome stuff will make us happy.
Yet, contrast this to the 1940s. Santos illustrated that the average happiness score (out of 10) was 7.5 points as compared to 7.2 points in 2005. Our iPhones, internet, and dishwashers were their equivalents of basic indoor showers, plumbing, and hot water.
With access to a plethora of much other awesome stuff, our happiness score did not drastically improve as we thought it would. This is a paradox we currently live in and as summarised by David Myers:
“Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and in fact a much greater risk of depression and all kinds of social pathology.”
Not getting the job we wanted or even having a higher salary isn’t actually that bad as our brains would have imagined. The moment we can rationalise and come to terms with our present situation(s), we will realise that our happiness is not going to be significantly impacted whether or not we attain the things we think would make us happy.
Thank you for reading!