You Are Bad at Making Yourself Happy

Jane - 1997 in Cambridge - maudlin and idealistic youth
Jane - 1998 in Cambridge, England - maudlin and idealistic youth

My job as Writer’s Digest publisher often leads people to remark what a great life I have. So young, so accomplished, so happy!

Well, you know the old cliche about people who appear to be living the perfect, enviable life?

Right—well, I am thankful and lucky for what I have. I won’t go into the happiness question because as soon as you start to talk about it, it disappears.

But here’s the more interesting question: Is the life you lead the one you expected for yourself?

What if you knew that, at age 21, I envisioned this:

  • Working in Peace Corps
  • Getting a PhD and teaching/living abroad
  • Marrying a man I’d spend the rest of my life with

If this is what’s supposed to make me happy, then I’d be living a nightmare right now—divorced in the Midwest with a corporate job in publishing.

We all have idealistic (perhaps misguided) dreams in our teens and twenties. I was supposed to stay at F+W for about 2 years, then get on with my “real” life. Obviously something else happened.

So what happens when we end up on a path we didn’t envision for ourselves?

It’s a question that Victoria Zackheim asked and edited an anthology on: The Face in the Mirror. I highly recommend it.

Back to the happiness question. I read a book, Stumbling on Happiness, that made a convincing argument that humans are very poor judges of what will make us happy. Malcolm Gladwell sums up the book on its Amazon page:

What distinguishes us as human beings from other animals is our ability to predict the future–or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. We’re terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that cherished happiness. Gilbert sets out to figure what that’s so: why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?

In making his case, Gilbert walks us through a series of fascinating—and in some ways troubling—facts about the way our minds work. In particular, Gilbert is interested in delineating the shortcomings of imagination. We’re far too accepting of the conclusions of our imaginations. Our imaginations aren’t particularly imaginative. Our imaginations are really bad at telling us how we will think when the future finally comes. And our personal experiences aren’t nearly as good at correcting these errors as we might think.

And this in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Fear of Flying by Erica Jong:

I want, I want, I want, but you don’t know what you want or how to get it. You hardly know who you are. You go on instinct. And your instinct mostly pushes you toward adventures you won’t grasp until you look back on them. Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.

Finally: The Abandoned Dreams Depot

And finally-finally: The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory (amazing TED talk on happiness)

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