The harder we try to engineer happiness the more elusive it can become. Often, what we think will make us happy isn’t quite what the experience turns out to be in reality. So how can it be that our ideas of what we think will make us happy in the future can be so wrong?
Millions of years ago the first type of humans experienced a massive increase in the size of their brains in a relatively short space of time. Most growth was in the frontal lobe region, above the eyes. Frontal lobe damage affects planning and if a person is unable to plan there is a reduction in anxiety. Both anxiety and planning involve worrying about the future. The ability to move forward and backward across time in our minds is perhaps humanity’s greatest evolutionary achievement.
The brain is very clever at creating shortcuts to access as well as store information. As a result, memories aren’t preserved perfectly, they are preserved in part and as we initially interpreted them, not as they may really have been intended.
Why our thoughts of future happiness are flawed
In the same way that our memories and our perceptions can be faulty, when it comes to imagining the future, the details that we imagine happening frequently do not give us the whole picture. It is not so much the things we do imagine happening that are incorrect, but more that we leave out things which do happen. As many psychological experiments have shown, the human mind is not well structure to note absences of things. But our brains do such a brilliant conjuring trick in making us believe that our interpretations are fact that we accept what it gives us without question.
Our personal future forecasts are a mixture of what our brains have invented, based on past experience, and an absence of details that our brains have conveniently ignored. Is it any wonder, then, that our predictions of what is likely to make us happy in the future will be wrongly based?
When we imagine things in the future, we use the same sensory parts of the brain that we use to experience real things in the present. We are generally not rational about future events, carefully weighing up the pros and cons, but run them through in our mind to see what emotional reaction we get. What we imagine happening is defined by what we are feeling now.
In short, the human brain is set up to imagine the future quite well, but not perfectly, and this accounts for the gulfs we often experience between what we thought would make us happy, and what actually does. This means that we can spend all our lives making money, then decide it wasn’t worth it, but it also means we can be pleasantly surprised when people, situations or events which we were certain would make us miserable turn out not to be so.
So how do we find reliable happiness?
The best way to find out how we will feel about a particular future course of action (a certain career, a move to a particular city, having children) is to ask people who have already done it how they felt. Given the human lust for control, this seems a bit unsatisfying – we feel we should make up our minds fully about our destinies, not ask other people. And yet, the best decisions may forever lay beyond our grasp if we are not willing to draw on the fabulous wealth of experience other members of the species can provide. As individuals we have enormous belief in our uniqueness, but it is also true that everything you consider doing has been done by someone else. Such a strategy, while not particularly exciting, is the best available to deliver us life satisfaction and well-being, whereas the happiness from relying purely on ourselves may only ever be stumbled upon.
Photo by LyndaSanchez