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April 29, 2021

The key to happiness may lie in not looking so hard

Several studies have revealed that unhappy individuals are more likely than happy ones to dwell on negative or ambiguous events. 

According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, all of us have a happiness set point. It’s partly encoded in our genes. If something good happens, our sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls -- often drastically. But it doesn't usually stay there, at least for very long.

Our key error is that we overestimate how long and how intensely a particular negative life event (such as a diagnosis of HIV or being fired from a cherished job) will throw us into despair, and how long and how intensely a particular positive event (earning lifetime tenure or enjoying a financial winfall) will throw us over the moon, she maintains in her book The Myths of Happiness.

The primary reason that we do this is neatly summed up by the fortune-cookie maxim: "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it."

In other words, we exaggerate the effect a life change will have upon our happiness because we can't foresee that we simply won’t always be thinking about it.

For example, when we try to predict how dejected we'll feel after our romance dissolves or how blissful we'll feel after we finally have the money to buy the long-dreamed-of beach house, we neglect to consider that during the days, weeks, and months after the event in question, many other events will intervene, thus serving to temper our pleasure or mitigate our pain.

Daily hassles (like being stuck in traffic or overhearing a catty comment) and daily uplifts (like running into an old friend) are likely to toy with our emotions to a significant degree and thus buffer the misery of a breakup or dilute the joy of a new home.

By Gordon Powers, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...