Surprising Thoughts On What Makes Us Unhappy

I’m a big believer in open and honest exchange of information. I’m a big believer in total transparency and I always encourage others to experience as many new and unique things as possible to broaden their horizons and become better leaders and better human beings. I do this because I believe that only by following these principles you can lead by example and only these principles give you the credibility in the eyes of others. However, they will not make you happy. In fact, once you get on the path of constant learning and exploration you are getting into a vicious cycle of unfulfilled dreams and you need to work hard to bring a piece of happiness back to your life… unless you find solace in the journey itself.

Experiencing more

Experiencing new things and broadening our horizons is making us more educated, more perceptive to other cultures and way of lives but also more aware of what we have and what we are missing. Imagine you live your whole live in a small village in the middle of your country. You never get out and know nothing about the outside world. Your village is your world. You have your family, you have your farm and you have a happy life. Then one day a visitor comes and brings you pictures of ocean and beautiful islands. He just killed your happiness. Suddenly you feel that you want to go there, you are not satisfied with your life anymore and you feel like missing on something. And this happens to us every single day in one form or another. The more global the society, the more we watch TV, the more we travel, the more we see what are all the things that we are missing in our lives, and chances are we feel more miserable. And what happens when you get to the island one day?

I still remember the very first time I saw ocean. Being from center of Europe it was a very powerful and exciting experience. I was sitting for several hours on the shore just looking at the water. Unfortunately, then I walked along the shore to school every single day for half a year and now ocean is just an ocean and I will never experience that sort of happiness I felt when seeing it for the first time. I just pushed the bar of what makes me happy a bit higher so next time I needed to add sunset and beer to get the same level of happiness. As Daniel Gilbert said in his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before.”

Having more information

I’m big into sharing information, but is having more information actually helps us to be more happy? Not really. In fact, it is not helpful at all. Let’s look at this situation. You are thinking about getting a new car. You start researching different models and collect a huge amount of information. And now you are sitting in your living room and trying to compare all the data and imagine how it would feel to drive that car in the future. Your brain picks a favorite (let’s say mustang convertible) and starts imagining how incredible it will be to drive that car. Then the day comes, you buy the car and drive it for a week. Suddenly all the small things are starting to pop up. It was raining the whole week so you couldn’t enjoy the no-roof experience, it feels quite bulky, the clutch feels weird. In the information overload your brain simply didn’t think about these daily aspects. It is still a fine car, but it doesn’t feel that great as you imagined based on the information you gathered.

Luckily, as I mentioned in this article your brain has an auto response system that will shield your feelings from anything negative so you will still feel ok. Numerous studies has shown that if you don’t supply your brain with enough information to imagine and instead provide it with experiences by people who are experiencing your future right now, it gets much better prediction on how you will actually feel. In our case, if instead of trying to imagine how great it would be driving your mustang convertible in the countryside you just went and asked someone who owns the car how does it feel today he would probably point out that it is raining often and once you try the free ride for once or twice it gets boring.

Deciding more

We all want to control our lives. It is one of the basic human desires to control our own destiny. The moment someone else starts controlling it we feel helpless and unhappy. That is the reason why we struggle so much for control, why we value freedom, why we want to decide everything even if the outcome will be worse than if we let someone else decide instead of us. The fact that we can decide just feels really good. Unfortunately, the price we pay is often pretty big. We all want to be in control because we believe that we can do better job of guiding our lives in the right direction than the next person would. Curiously enough, it is very rarely the case. Our mind is imagining future that is very different from the actual future.

Did it ever happen to you that you really wanted the next promotion or a new car or a purse and you imagined how great it will be and how different your life becomes? And then you got promoted, got the car or the purse and nothing really changed? What I experienced in professional environment is people saying things like “Yes, I’m busy this month, but once I finish the current project things will be different and I will have more time.” You are in control, you are doing what you are doing on purpose with a vision of better future. Well, guess what, that future will never come. In a month’s time the current task will be finished but other tasks will pop up and things will not feel the way we believe today that they will feel. Maybe if you listened to your boss or a spouse who is urging you to slow down today the final outcome could be much better and you would be happier… even though someone would make the decision for you.

So even if all those things are working in our disadvantage and are making it more difficult to be happy should we just sit in our homes, never go out, never learn and never try to decide anything? No! Just trick your brain into finding happiness in the process of learning and seeing more and not in the final results. The rest will follow automatically. As I wrote in “Human brain, the biggest liar of all times” our brain has one incredible power. A power to cook up the facts of our past memories to make us happy, power to deploy number of psychological tricks to lessen any negative experience we might have so if we let our mind delude us we can still live pretty happy lives.

Twitter type summary: “Constant learning and exploration gets you into a vicious cycle of unfulfilled dreams… unless you find solace in the journey itself.”

What makes you happy? And I mean truly happy? It is not that easy to come up with really reliable answer as your brain will be telling you all sorts of things.

Disclosure: The thoughts in this article are influenced by the ideas presented by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness.

Human brain, the biggest liar of all times

The human brain is a marvelous piece of natural technology.  It has many features but there is one that is truly unique and distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It can imagine things. The rest of the animals living on this planet need to see, hear, touch, and experience the world around to be able to react to it. We, the human beings can do all of that in our minds. Over the last couple of millions of years mother nature provided us with a part of brain called frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for imagining and to be really effective it uses the same areas of brain we use when we see or hear things in real-time. That allows us achieve so much more than other animals but it also makes a powerful tool for feeding us misinformation and makes us puppets to our own cheating minds. In this post I will present couple of ideas described by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness illustrated by everyday examples we all experience.

Our cheating memory

Our brain has a limited capacity to store information so it created a neat way how to do it. It stores just the highlights, just the key points from what we experience and not every single detail. When we want to retrieve that memory it gets the key points and extrapolates the rest. As you would expect it extrapolates the rest based on what we experience today and not what happened in the past. And not just on what we experience today but also on how we feel at that particular moment. This means that we essentially remember things the way we want them remember today.

For example do you remember how you felt when you tasted some food for the first time? I love to eat sauerkraut. And I also know that when I was young my mother always had to push me to eat it as I didn’t like it. Regardless how much I try to remember how it tasted back then and why I didn’t like it… I just cannot. Does the phrase “I don’t understand how I could ever live without this” ring a bell? At the other hand a food I really despise is sweet rice. Last time I ate it was when I was a child and I remember that I didn’t like it. I have no idea why. I didn’t taste it since then. My brain stored just the most basic information “sweet rice = no good” and no details around.

Our cheating imagination

The same as with the past memory applies to imagining our future. We focus only on the big picture and we don’t think about details. That is why we often overpromise on what we can deliver. We will just think about the highlights and will not think about all the small details around it.

A typical example for always busy people is to promise someone that we will have a dinner or beer with them on Friday next week. In our mind we see this picture: I just finished work at 5pm and together with friends head for dinner, get our favorite food, enjoy the conversation, and have a good time. Then Friday comes. We realize that the last meeting at work ends 5pm sharp and we need some more time to finish other tasks, it is raining outside and the weather is nasty, we are not particularly hungry, a customer just yelled at us and we are not in mood for a laugh and tomorrow morning we need to get up early to take our kids for a trip. We forgot about all these small details when imagining the future a week ago and now they are very real and visible so we pick up a phone and call our friends that we cannot make it. These little things were planned long time ago, our brain just didn’t take them into account when imagining the future. And the worst part? Our brain is cheating even now, because if we ignored him and went for the meal with friends we would have a great time…

Our brain protecting our feelings

When something bad happens to us our brain finds ways how to minimize the bad feelings about it (it finds excuses). This seems like really useful feature but it doesn’t explain why we still feel bad about some things. The trick lies in another aspect of how the brain works. It is more sensitive to changes than to total magnitude of an event. When the change is big enough, or the situation bad enough it triggers the internal psychological immune system. The brain then starts coming up with positive explanations to limit the negative impact on us and makes us feel a bit better about it. When the change is small, or just minor annoyance this internal system is not triggered. As a result we sometimes over-react, feel unreasonably upset with small things while coping much better with major disasters.

Just think about situation when some major project didn’t go as you planned, or you really screwed up. What has most likely happened was you coming up with explanations like “It wasn’t really my fault as I didn’t have all the information and no one supported me.” “I wasn’t really too interested in the project anyway, and we are better off without it.” And then compare it with situations when you get really angry with waiting too long in a line at the counter in super market or using bad language about the car ahead of you that took too long to get moving at the lights so you missed the green and need to wait two more minutes.

Since we are talking about things that irritate us let me make one more statement. We tend to remember unique situations more than common ones. And because of that our brain makes us think that they happen more often than they really do. So next time you get to the coffee machine in the office and it is out of coffee beans so you need to refill it and you say to yourself “Not again. Why does it always happen to me?” just consider the number of times it actually didn’t happen to you. You feel that it happens every day, but if you would start a diary and always make a note you would discover that it is just your brain lying to you and in fact it doesn’t happen that often as your mind makes you believe.

Our brain trying hard to make us happy

Our brain constantly tries to make us happy and altering the past in a way to protect us. When we make a decision our brain will find ways to justify that decision as the best one. As Daniel Gilbert notes “It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.” This is the reason why we feel anxiety when having to make a decision but feel relieved once the decision is done. In fact in majority of situations we feel really good about the decision made and we like the results and the more time goes on the more sure we are it was the best decision of our life.

Twitter type summary: “Human brain has an incredible power of imagination. And it uses that power to feed us misinformation and faulty facts.”

Do you have stories to share where your brain has failed you? Have it ever happened to you that you realized you remember things differently than they happened?