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I Got What I Wanted. Still Not Happy.


Regardless of which particular tools we choose to help lift our own set point, one thing appears to be certain: We're better off aiming for happiness moment to moment than trying to engineer happiness through long-term planning. This is because—as science now shows us—human beings are fairly hopeless at predicting what will make us happy or how long that happiness will last.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, PhD, spends his days exploring the riddle of human self-delusion. He's a pioneer in the field known as affective forecasting, in which researchers measure the distressing gap between what we believe will make us happy and how wrong we tend to be. "We're such strangers to ourselves," he tells me, "nowhere more than in our pursuit of the holy grail of happiness. We usually overestimate how things will affect us and rarely underestimate them." This discrepancy—known as the impact bias—causes a great deal of "miswanting." For example, we scrimp and save for the bigger house, only to find ourselves then more isolated from our neighbors or too exhausted from overwork to enjoy the new swimming pool.

What's more, the results of our choices are not nearly as life-changing as we think they'll be. In a 1978 study of SWB among lottery winners and paraplegics, both groups adjusted to their respective circumstances with surprising results: The lottery winners settled back to levels of happiness that did not differ significantly from a control group. The paraplegics, while less happy, were not as unhappy as was expected. In fact, one study revealed that major events, happy or not, lose their impact on happiness levels in less than three months. If we understood how quickly this normalizing process worked, we might invest our hopes in things that could actually help us feel better.

Money and Happiness: We Do the Math

Experts agree that a lifetime spent chasing the almighty dollar rarely raises SWB. In fact, Myers, who has reviewed many studies on the correlation between income and personal happiness, cites research by Ronald Inglehart, PhD, who found that once middle-class comforts are in place, the link between the two "is surprisingly weak (indeed, virtually negligible)." Gilbert agrees: "The first 40 grand makes a dramatic difference, but after basic needs are met, the next 10 million does almost nothing." (I tell him that I'll be the judge of that.) "The jury's been in for a while," says R. Adam Engle, whose Mind and Life Institute sponsored the recent conference between the Dalai Lama and a group of top scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the subject of Buddhism and its relation to how the mind works. "We can't hang on to the idea that if we get more stuff we'll be happier."

"Working beyond our own limits...not leaving enough for ourselves on the side, we often compromise our own happiness"

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