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Why Your Mind Hinders Your Happiness: The Science of Miswanting and Perception Adaptation

"If only I had that promotion, that car, or that perfect body, I would be happy." I hear this often, but as much as we think we know what we want, our minds can often mislead us. Research shows that our intuition overestimates how happy we will be if we achieve specific goals or get certain things. Our minds are constantly miswanting, and this can hinder our happiness. In this article, we'll explore some of the ways our minds hinder our happiness and what we can do about it.



Miswanting: Trusting Our Intuition Can Mislead Us


Dr. Laurie Santos, a Yale professor, introduced the term “miswanting,” which means being mistaken about what and how much we will like things in the future. Our brains deliver to us this idea that we want certain things, but we are often wrong about it. For example, we might crave a donut and believe it will make us happy, but after we eat it, the feeling doesn't last. This is because our minds don't get the nuance of what we genuinely want for happiness.


The problem with miswanting is that it can lead us to focus on the wrong goals. We think achieving certain things, like winning the lottery or getting a perfect job, will make us happy. However, research shows that these things won't actually make us as happy as we think they will. To counterbalance miswanting, we must be aware of our biases and recognize that our intuition can mislead us.


Relying on Reference Points as Opposed to Objective Decisions


Our minds judge what would make us happy based on our surroundings, which means our reference points can often cloud our judgment. We compare ourselves to others, which can affect how we feel about our lives. For example, if someone making $30,000 a year is asked what they would need to be happier, they might say $50,000. But if someone making $100,000 is asked the same question, they might say $250,000. Our minds are not thinking in absolute objective terms, and this can lead to misjudgment.


One of the most famous examples of this is seen in the Olympics. Athletes who win gold medals look happy, but silver medalists often look less happy. The bronze medalists, on the other hand, look just as happy or even happier than the gold medalists. This is because our minds constantly use salient reference points to judge our happiness. The silver medalist sees a reference point of being so close to winning the gold medal but falling short, while the bronze medalist sees a reference point of not making it on the podium at all and just being happy to be there.


Wants Based on Social Comparison


Social comparison is everywhere, and we constantly use it as a reference point to determine our happiness. Studies show that office workers earning less than their peers are less happy, even if they have everything they want. We compare ourselves to others and use them as a reference point for our own happiness. But this can be a problem because we often have unrealistic reference points based on what we think “keeping up with the Jones’” actually is.


When we scroll Instagram, watch TV, or follow influencers, we often see people with more means than us. Our brains trick us into thinking that having more stuff will make us happier, but that's not how happiness works. We need to be mindful of how we use social comparison as a reference point and choose reasonable comparisons. For example, I am not going to compare myself to Michelle Obama or Carrie Underwood. It’s not feasible!


Perceptual Adaptation: Our Minds Get Used to Stuff


Our minds are built to get used to stuff, so we often adapt to our happiness levels, making it challenging to maintain a constant state of happiness. This phenomenon is called perceptual adaptation, which can affect our happiness in many areas of our lives. For example, when we get a pay raise, we are initially happy, but we eventually get used to that income level and want more. This is also called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. Essentially, when new, exciting, and awesome things happen to us, we are excited and happy at first, but we end up getting used to it and wanting more.


Dr. Santos mentioned a study on marriage, which showed that couples are happy when they first get married, but that happiness often fades after two years. This is because we get used to our partners, and the excitement wears off.


Fortunately, there are ways to combat this problem; we can counteract this by being aware that perceptual adaptation happens and being intentional about how we look at things. We can maintain a sense of gratitude and happiness by revisiting the first moments of a happy experience. To learn more, check out my article on Hedonic Adaptation Prevention.


Impact Bias: Our Minds Overestimate the Emotional Impact of Future Events


We often overestimate the emotional impact of future events, both in terms of intensity and duration. For example, we might think that eating the seventh cookie will be as enjoyable as the first, but it won't. This is called impact bias, an illusion that our minds create. We believe certain things will make us happy for a long time, but that's scientifically false.


Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues coined the term “focalism,” which means focusing on one event and forgetting the other things that happen in our lives. For example, we might predict that losing a job is the worst thing ever, but we don't think about other things that could happen, like getting a new job or making new friends. By zooming out and looking at the bigger picture, we can better predict how we will feel.


Don’t Let Your Brain Be the Boss!


Our minds can hinder our happiness in many ways, from miswanting to perceptual adaptation and impact bias. However, we can improve our overall sense of well-being by being aware of these biases and taking intentional steps to counteract them. We need to choose reasonable social comparisons, focus on the positive aspects of our lives, and be mindful of how our minds trick us into believing that certain things will make us happier than they actually will. By taking these steps, we can create a happier, more fulfilling life for ourselves.


Until next time, life is heavy enough; searching for happiness shouldn’t be an extra burden. Get a dose of happiness delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe to happy mail, delivered twice a month.


And, let’s connect on social at @everydayhappinesswithkatie and join the community on the hashtags #IntentionalMargins and #everydayhappinesswithkatie on Instagram.

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