Miswanting: why we’re wrong about what will make us happy

And what to do about it

Photo by Fernando Brasil on Unsplash

I learned an awesome word last week: miswanting.

I love the way it sounds. It’s so mysterious! But, what does it mean?

Miswanting refers to our poor ability to accurately predict the future states of our minds. In other words, we tend to be wrong about the intensity and duration of our good and bad feelings.

So, what does this mean for us?

It means that many of the things we think will make us happy — more money, that promotion, the perfect partner, that exotic vacation — won’t make us any happier than we are today, or if they do make us happier, that extra happiness won’t last for long.

On the flip side, it means we also poorly predict the impact that bad things will have on us. We fear our business failing, our marriage breaking apart, our pitch to investors going side-ways, that public-speaking event coming up. Yet, we’re typically wrong about the impact those things will have on us, too — they don’t turn out nearly as badly as we imagined they would.

Why does this matter? It matters because what we want ultimately depends on our predicted future state of mind. We want that promotion because we think we’ll be happier when we get it.

But, what if we’re wrong about all that? What if we won’t be happier with that promotion? What if, after a brief burst of excitement, everything returns to precisely the way it was?

There is a lot at stake here. The truth of miswanting means that all those goals we’ve set for ourselves might not be in our best interest — achieving them might not make us any happier than we are today.

That’s very concerning.

So, what does make us happy? Good question! But, it might be useful to start by exploring what doesn’t make us happy.

What doesn’t make us happy

If you’ve paid any attention to life whatsoever, you will have noticed that happiness never lasts.

This is obvious for more trivial events.

The happiness you felt when eating the delicious five-course meal at that swanky restaurant? Gone. The happiness you felt after giving that amazing presentation at work? Gone.

However, this is less obvious for more significant life events.

The happiness you felt when you passed your final university exam? Gone. The happiness you felt the day you got married? Gone. The happiness you felt at the sight of your first child? Also gone.

Our feelings never last, which we all know on some level. But when we want things, like a promotion, to publish a book, or to get millions of followers, don’t we tend to think that our lives will be better in an enduring way once we get them?

I’m sorry to report that the science is in: this is not what happens. Even people who win huge sums of money in the lottery don’t report being any happier a year of two after winning than they were before winning.

Whaaaaaaat?

Yeah, that was my reaction, too. Who would have thought that material wealth doesn’t make you happy?

Sure, people have been saying this for thousands of years, but come on! They were all just jealous that they didn’t live in the lap of luxury like the kings and queens of old, right?

Unfortunately, this problem extends far beyond wanting material wealth. We’re probably wrong about the amount of happiness a lot of things we want will bring — getting married, having children, writing a book, starting a business, traveling the world.

We think that getting these things will change us. Perhaps, we think our default mood will shift toward happy, and away from the tired/grumpy mood in which we mostly find ourselves today.

The thing is, once we get what we want, the excitement has worn off, and the dust has settled, we inevitably end up right back where we started — at our baseline level of happiness.

This baseline, unique to each person and determined by genetics and conditioning, controls how happy or unhappy we feel, generally. Regardless of external circumstances, we tend to return to our baseline over time.

Unfortunately, acquiring the things we typically want won’t move this baseline any higher, despite our predictions that they will.

So, if all the things we typically want for ourselves won’t make us any happier than we are today, what will?

What does make us happy

We are all caught in a vicious cycle. We want. We achieve. We fail to be happier in a meaningful or lasting way. We want again.

Each time we want, we imagine that this time will be different. We think, Once I get this want, my life will be forever better.

In psychology, this endless cycle of wanting-achieving-wanting is sometimes referred to as the hedonic treadmill. Essentially, the idea is that no matter how hard or fast we chase after happiness, we’re always stuck where we are — wanting more.

The question is, can we jump off the treadmill and start making real progress toward a happier life?

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (as well as the field of positive psychology, in general), would have us believe that, yes, we can move our baseline level of happiness in a positive direction.

Achor recommends several things that can be done to achieve this. I’ll mention two of them: meditation and gratefulness.

Meditation is a powerful tool in our battle for happiness. Practiced consistently over time, it has been shown to raise our baseline level of happiness.

Why does meditation make us happier? Meditation rewires our brains in fundamental ways. One of the impacts of this rewiring is we are better able to manage our stress response, which causes feelings of anxiety and fear.

As a daily meditator, I have noticed that the degree to which I feel anxiety and fear has decreased markedly in the 20 months I’ve been meditating. If this was the sole benefit of meditation I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Amazingly, it isn’t, although I won’t go into those other benefits here.

So, download an app like Waking Up or Headspace, and get going!

The survival of our species has depended upon us noticing problems in our environment. In the past, those problems might have threatened our lives. Today, those problems are mostly annoyances (at least for some of us), like rush-hour traffic.

Since our biology is set up to detect problems, we sometimes see problems to the exclusion of anything else.

So, when we arrive at our 5-star resort, we pay more attention to the lengthy check-in process than the beautiful ocean view. When our child gets a B on their report card, we chastise her about this failure rather than congratulate her for the As. When we are done giving our presentation at work, we think about what went wrong as opposed to what went right.

Now, it’s important to note that it’s useful to notice problems. Companies pay people a lot of money to notice and solve problems. And, noticing problems in our own lives is critical for growth.

But, and this is a big but, because our natural inclination is to notice problems we often fail to notice what’s going right. This can skew our perception of reality, making it seem much worse than it is.

How can we correct this bias?

Achor recommends we practice gratitude. This can be as simple as writing down three things each day that you are grateful for and explaining why you are grateful for them. They need to be specific, though. Don’t write, “I’m grateful for my family.” Instead, write something like, “I’m grateful for being able to have dinner as a family last night. It was nice to see everyone getting along.”

In time, your mind will shift from only seeing problems, to sometimes also noticing good things, too. By noticing good things that you would have ignored or brushed aside in the past, your frame of mind will shift. You will be pulled toward a happier and more satisfied disposition — you will raise your baseline level of happiness.

Don’t let your mind deceive you

Don’t be deceived. Getting what you want is not necessarily going to make you any happier than you are today.

This doesn’t mean you need to stop wanting that promotion, new home, or luxury car. Just understand that these things won’t make you as happy as you imagine they will.

If you want to be happier than you are today, practice meditation and gratefulness. These practices will change your experience of life on a moment to moment basis. They — and not those other things — are what will increase your baseline level of happiness.

Go out there and give them a try. You won’t be disappointed!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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