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Do you really know what makes you happy?

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

When faced with the task of making hundreds of decisions each day – from what to wear, to what to eat, to what to do – most of us believe we’re making the choice that will ultimately result in our greatest chance of happiness.

So why is it that we often make decisions that are not actually in the best interests of our happiness?

One reason is that we don’t really understand the things that will make us happy. And we overestimate the intensity and the duration of how long our happiness will last.

Harvard professor and psychologist Dan Gilbert referred to this as the ‘impact bias’, which basically describes how we underestimate our own resilience.

Imagine winning the lottery. We visualise rolling around in lots of money, going on extravagant holidays, driving around in luxury cars, or maybe never having to work again. When we think about the best thing that could possibly happen to us, we only see the good side.

We don’t anticipate the many changes that will go along with this new-found existence – the family members that will come out of the woodwork asking for money; the added taxes; the stress that money (even more money) brings to a relationship, and so on.

If I asked you to now imagine the worst thing possible, you’d commit the same error. You’d focus on how awful it would be and on how sad you’d feel. But you would forget to imagine the family and friends who would rally around you for support, and you’d also fail to consider your own adaptation to adversity, and the resilience that helps you get through that time and move forward.

Put simply, we really suck at predicting the things that will make us happy in the long-term.

'We don’t really understand the things that will make us happy. And we overestimate the intensity and the duration of how long our happiness will last.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg ,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Instead, we are attracted to short-term gains – to material purchases, to quick wins, to instant gratification. We seek to achieve these intense, but short bursts of joy, which actually have limited impact on our happiness in the long-term.

I might even argue that rather than being actual joy or happiness, these instances better reflect a sense of relief at no longer feeling like there’s something missing in our lives.

But this is just one of the many mistakes our brain makes when we try to look into the future. We think that moving to California will make us happy (it won’t), and that our football team winning the grand final will mean everlasting joy (it doesn’t).

So for many of you who may be anxiously awaiting your exam results, consider this: If you do not achieve the grade you are hoping for, you will be ok. You were born with a built-in resilience system that will ensure that the intensity of the disappointment you feel won’t last, and it certainly won’t last for as long as you imagine.

You may take comfort in knowing that the happiness and satisfaction felt by those who achieve the top grades won’t last either.

Trust the science

One of the pitfalls of the human brain’s unique ability to forecast into the future is that the system is vulnerable; it makes mistakes. Being aware of these vulnerabilities puts us in a better position to direct our behaviour towards things that might actually increase our happiness.

If we can’t trust ourselves to know what’s best for our happiness, perhaps we’re better off trusting the science.

According to the golden triangle of happiness, and supported by international research, the surest way to achieve happiness in the long term involves:

  • having the money to buy what you want (rather than actually buying what you want)
  • finding someone to share your experiences with, and
  • making those experiences as meaningful and satisfying as possible.
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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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