4 Biases That Hinder Your Happiness

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Everyone wants to be happy, but happiness can be frustratingly hard to achieve. Even when you get exactly what you want, you often end up feeling less happy than you thought you would, and what happiness you do feel is fleeting. What's up with that? In the Yale course The Science of Well-Being on Coursera — which has been taken by more than 300,000 people and stands as Yale's most popular course — Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos explains the annoying biases we all hold that hinder our happiness, then explains how we can overcome them. Check out the biases below, then find out how you can work through them in her free Coursera course.

1. Your Intuition Fails You

You probably have a few things you want in life, and it's reasonable to assume that getting those things will make you happy. Weirdly, that's the first place many of us go astray. In 2000, researchers Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert coined a term for this tendency: miswanting. We've all experienced this; maybe it's the fast-food feast you think will definitely make you feel better but just makes you feel sick, or the big fancy degree you think will make life fulfilling but unexpectedly leaves you contemplating a career change. Sometimes the opposite happens, and the party you were dreading ends up being fun or a breakup or layoff leads to an exciting new chapter in your life. The problem is that most people are very bad at predicting how events will affect them, and they often end up surprised when reality doesn't match their expectations.

2. You Think in Relative Terms

If you won a medal in the Olympics, it's reasonable to assume that you'd be happiest with a gold medal, slightly less happy with a silver medal, and slightly less happy still with a bronze. But studies suggest that's not what happens; instead, the gold medalist is happiest (they did the best, after all), the bronze medalist is second-happiest (they almost didn't get a medal!), and the silver medalist is least happy (if they had done just a little better, they could have gotten gold).

Like an Olympian, your brain weighs the value of your experiences relative to other things, whether that's other people or just yourself in the past. Half of the participants in one study said they'd willingly accept $50,000 less a year if it meant that they were making more than their peers, and another study found that people who are unemployed are happier in places with high unemployment. But this can get harmful fast: If you follow celebrities on Instagram or watch millionaires on TV, it can skew your beliefs about how much money the rest of the world has — and that comparison can make you unhappy.

3. You Get Used to Things

Think about the last thing you were really happy about; maybe it was starting a new job, buying the latest gadget, or getting a date with the person of your dreams. As happy as it made you at the time, chances are good that the happiness didn't last that long. That's not because it wasn't worth being happy about, but because of a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation. Basically, your brain doesn't remain in absolute bliss (or absolute anguish) forever — it eventually levels out and your emotions go back to business as usual.

A great example of this in action comes from a 1978 study of people you'd assume would be happier than average: lottery winners. Researchers had 22 people who had won the lottery in the past year rate their overall happiness and predict how happy they'd be in the future. Surprisingly, their happiness ratings were almost identical to a control group that hadn't won the lottery. They just got used to the money. This happens with lots of things, Santos explains: going to your dream college, buying a new car, getting married, hearing your child say their first words. "This is sad, right?" she says in The Science of Well-Being. "Because we want to maintain the awesomeness of all these moments."

4. You Don't Realize That You Get Used to Things

It's sad that good things become mundane, but it's even sadder when that takes us by surprise. Most changes in our lives have eventually become the new normal, and yet we still expect the next change to be the one that's different. This is what Wilson and Gilbert call the impact bias, and it says that we overestimate the impact of future experiences in two ways: how intensely we'll feel about them, and how long that feeling will last. You think that your team winning the championship will be the best thing that ever happened to you and that you'll ride that wave all year, and then you're disappointed when it's just a regular celebration followed by a few days bumping fists with other fans. The same is true of bad things: You think losing a limb in a car crash would be devastating, but perhaps it results in a closer relationship with your loved ones and a new perspective on life that you didn't expect.

Wilson and Gilbert say this happens because of two things, which they call focalism and immune neglect. Focalism refers to the idea that we predict our reactions to future events by focusing on just one element instead of considering everything else that could be going on in our lives at the time: The confetti and gleaming championship trophy are great, but getting up early for work the next day and tackling your to-do list on little sleep is less so. Immune neglect refers to the way we forget about what Gilbert calls the "psychological immune system" — the powers of resilience and adaptation we can call on when things get tough. "We're actually a lot more resilient than we like to think sometimes," Santos says in The Science of Well-Being.

To learn how to overcome these happiness-hindering beliefs, you can take the free 10-week Yale course The Science of Well-Being, taught by Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos and rated 4.9 out of 5 on Coursera. Check it out right here.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 21, 2019
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