How happy are you now? How is it compared with yesterday? With last week? As it turns out, comparing happiness, even of the same person at different times, is tricky. Why? Because our experiences change our view of happiness.
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert explains how our experiences change our view of happiness:
Studies such as these demonstrate that once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened… Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see.
The question is: how do our experiences change our view of happiness? One good explanation is the experience-stretching hypothesis:
We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that “they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing.” Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing.
Here is an example. Years ago I would be very happy to get a computer without an Internet connection because I didn’t know how good the Internet is. But now that I do, I would be far less happy if I just got a computer without an Internet connection. My experience of using the Internet has changed my view of happiness. It has stretched my scale of happiness. While in the past getting just a computer would make me happy at the scale of 8 out of 8, now it would be only 4 out of 8. Only by getting an Internet connection along with the computer would I reach an 8.
I can see that this hypothesis is true in my life and I expect it to also be true in yours. There are many experiences that have stretched my scale of happiness. They make me see happiness differently because I now have different expectations.
However, I see a dangerous trap here: what if you experience something that feels very good in the short term but is actually harmful in the long term? The hypothesis says that once you taste it, you won’t be as happy without it. The better it feels, the far less happy you would be without it.
This explains addictions well. Why is it difficult to get rid of an addiction? Because the short term experience is so good that you feel a big pain if you don’t have it. It has changed your view of happiness. You’ve tasted how good it is and now you can no longer be happy without it. The fact that it’s harmful in the long term doesn’t change anything because your future happiness is abstract while your current happiness is concrete.
It also explains why it is difficult to get rid of a bad habit. It might not have become an addiction, but if you feel that you lose something by not doing it, you will most likely continue doing it. It will become a habit, a bad habit.
So how can we overcome this? The best strategy is to prevent your view of happiness from being distorted in the first place. If you know of something that people say is good but you know is harmful in the long term, run away from it. Don’t ever try it. Not even once. You might think that you can handle it, but once you are caught, it will be very difficult for you to escape.
Photo by whatmegsaid