There’s a reason you’re not happy, and it’s inside your own head. Your lack of satisfaction and contentment is (at least partly) due to your own brain, and the tricks it’s playing on you. If you’ve reached a point in your life where you are happy, most of the time, congratulations. You’ve probably managed to fight back and overcome some of the ways your brain is working against you.
That’s the good news. We can override some of the features of the human mind and rearrange our thinking patterns to optimize our life satisfaction. But first we need to acknowledge some of the tricks our brain is playing on us.
Your brain is hopeless at imagining the future
Author Daniel Gilbert addresses this in his book Stumbling on Happiness, in which he boldly claims that man is, in fact, the only living being capable of imagining the future, and then goes on to point out how this ability is highly flawed.
Put simply, when we imagine the future, we tend to imagine what’s there, and not what’s missing. We imagine all the good things we’ll have, and forget about the good things we’ll be lacking.
When we imagine a prestigious, high-profile job, our vision includes the high salary, the corner office, and the power suit, but not the lack of free time due to the gruelling hours, or the lack of the happy marriage due to the focus and committment needed to climb to the corporate ladder.
When we imagine being married, our vision often includes the fairy tale wedding, the honeymoon, and romantic evenings in front of the fire drinking wine with our partner, but leaves out the dirty socks left on the floor, the bickering, compromising, and snoring.
Conversely, when we’re unhappily married and contemplating divorce, we imagine a future where we have sock-free floors, freedom and autonomy, and an uninterrupted night’s sleep, and forget to factor in what we’ll be lacking: things like moral support, financial security and hearing the words ‘I love you’ on a regular basis.
Your brain ‘miswants’ constantly
So how else does our mind work against our happiness? It simply wants things that won’t make us happy. It’s certainly not tricking us on purpose when it comes to this. It simply ‘miswants’, or wants stuff that will have no real impact on our happiness.
For example your brain thinks it wants you to have a job where you earn a $100,000. It also thinks it wants you to spend time on Facebook, every single day. It thinks these things will make you happy, but do they?
We’ve all been told money won’t make us happy, but it’s not strictly true. Financial security is important to our happiness, though extreme wealth isn’t. There are several studies that back this up, but for now let’s consider a Princeton University study that found happiness does increase with income, but that this correlation seems to stop dead at around $75,000. Once you’re earning this much, there’s a negligible increase in your happiness if you’re then given a pay rise to $100,000. This makes sense, for a study carried out in the USA. $75,000 is generally enough to lift you clear of the poverty line and live a nice life in the US. So an extra $25,000 may seem great, but it won’t have anywhere near the impact that your pay increases from $25,000 to $50,000 or $50,000 to $75,000 did.
So what would make us more happy? Here’s where your brain gets it wrong. Several completely unrelated studies (such as this one and this one) show that there is a significant decrease in happiness for many people when they spend time on social media. For many people taking a break from social media increases their happiness and well-being considerably.
Why is this important? Because your brain is a big, fat liar. It presents social media to you as something pleasurable. It lures you in that direction with the power of an addiction, and it truly makes you believe that you want to scroll through your social feeds endlessly at the end of the day, rather than exercising, talking to your family, or taking a bubble bath.
If you ask anyone in the free world which they’d rather do, earn $100,000 or delete their social media, you’re likely to receive strange looks and answers that indicate the $100,000 will make them much happier. No-one is intentionally lying when they say there’s no contest. They’re just repeating the lie their brain has told them.
Your brain does this thing called ‘Hedonic Adaptation’
Hedonic adaptation is another nasty trick our minds play on us. This happens when our brain tells us that something will make us happy, and for once it’s being honest with us. We follow our brain’s suggestion and buy the sports car, get the big house, or invest in the designer purse. And we’re happy… very happy, initially.
Then our brain turns on us. It starts adapting to what we’ve got. It gets used to it. And suddenly, the happiness is gone. Our car is just what we drive. Our home is just where we live. Our purse is just where we put our lipstick and our girl supplies when we leave the house.
Hedonic adaptation doesn’t only apply to purchases, of course. It applies to marrying the wonderful partner, being accepted into the Ivy League school, or getting the dream job. These things make us happy the day, week, or month they happen, but a year later? Our brain has fully adapted and we rarely think about how fortunate we are.
How to fight back
Fighting back against our own brains is the way to start forging a new path to true happiness, but obviously it’s an ongoing and highly intentional process.
The good news is, you’re half-way there. You’re aware of what your brain is doing to you now. So you can start defending yourself. Here’s are a few tricks to get you started.
Simply spend more time paying attention to what your brain leaves out when it imagines or wants (or ‘miswants’). No job, marriage, or divorce is flawless and pain-free. Force yourself to include the bad parts of what your brain thinks it wants, and come to a more balanced conclusion of what will really make you happy.
I know you’re sick of hearing how important gratitude is, but it’s a master weapon when it comes to fighting back against the cruel mind tricks you’re playing on yourself. By focussing on what’s good about the life you have, you make it harder for your brain to imagine a ‘better’ future that leaves them out. When you appreciate the good things about your current situation, your brain finds it harder to ignore the fact that they’re often lacking from the imaginary future it creates for you.
Imagine life without what you currently have
The ancient stoics took this to a high level, imagining horrible tragedies, such as the death of a child, to make them appreciate that child in the here and now. Modern day anxiety levels won’t allow most of us to envision terrible tragedies without reaching for the Xanax, but there are ways to do a toned down version of this.
Imagine your much-loved but irritating teenager has left home already and you’re empty nesting. Imagine your lovely but flawed partner is away on a long business trip and you have no-one to watch Netflix with. Imagine you’re graduating from this prestigious, cool, but over-demanding Ivy League school in a month, instead of three years. It’s often enough to override your brain’s hedonic adaptation a little.
Buy experiences not things
There’s considerable evidence to indicate that experiences make us more happy than stuff, and hedonic adaptation partially explains why. Your brain will adapt to the car, house, or purse, because you use them every day. But book a tandem sky dive, a weekend road trip, or two weeks in Italy, and your brain simply doesn’t have time to adapt and re-frame that experience as your ‘new normal’. Even after your experience is over, you’ll have banked the happy memories. You’ve thwarted hedonic adaptation.
Turn off your Facebook
It’s easier than getting a job that pays $100,000. No, really. It is. Give it a try.