Having a successful career. Being with the partner of your dreams. Owning the fastest sports car or that big bungalow on the hill. These are typical goals that people have come to believe will bring them happiness. But for how long? Why does happiness from material possessions not last?
This is a case of ‘miswanting’, which is a category of ‘affective forecasting’. Coined by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson, the term is defined as ‘people [making] mistakes about how much they will like something in the future [and] often [mispredicting] the duration of their good and bad feelings’.
People often assume they know what their hearts desire and these are always things they covet. Often when they manage to attain them, the good feelings do not last.
Many of the things we think will make us happy, like having more money, nabbing Prince Charming, going on that long vacation, getting that promotion everyone wanted, do not seem to make us happier than what we are today. That extra happiness seems rather fleeting. So what does it take to unlock the enigmatic notion of being happy?
The concept of happiness
The concept of happiness is fluid and individualistic. What makes someone happy may ironically be the cause of displeasure for someone else.
Ling Anne Hsieh, who co-founded Project Green Ribbon, a youth-led organisation dedicated to lending support to those struggling with their mental health, says that the concept depends highly on different periods as well.
“The modern concept of happiness, albeit warped, is that happiness is an ideal state that can be reached,” she comments.
Elaborating, Ms Hsieh says that it is “a state of heart that can be achieved at any one moment regardless of one’s circumstances” because people believe they can “do different things and establish different means to achieve [it]”.
Such is the case for financial consultant Ariel Seah. She says the things that make her feel content are intangible. The 28-year-old says “to be in a state of bliss and peace within [myself]” is happiness in itself. One of the ways she strives to attain peace is to be “comfortable in my own skin”.
Once Ms Seah achieves that, she is “in control of [the] situation” which helps her – concentrate on the right things that help her reach total happiness.
Ms Hsieh shares the same thought that “to be happy is to know that you are content within, [and] to be joyful in one’s own nature,” she adds.
A 28-year-old account manager, Zheng Xiaoting, internalises a similar mindset about happiness. She says “to have the ability to [follow] what your inner thoughts want [over] what society wants” is how she can feel happy.
Knowing yourself: The first step in setting the right goals
While Ms Seah is fortunate to realise what brings her happiness, not everyone is as lucky.
She says not being able to fully understand what can make you happy “happens all the time” and to many, regardless of age and gender. Ms Seah adds that she still has to come to grips with it sometimes because “there is that side of [us] where we think we are [certain] of [what brings us total happiness] but [it is] actually not the case”.
Ms Seah gives an insight, that it is sometimes not about what we understand about ourselves, but what others see that directs our beliefs to what we think will contribute to our happiness.
“It’s a constant learning and discovery of yourself, your life” and the need to be open-minded. These are keys to discovering true happiness, she says.
This is supported by Ms Hsieh’s belief that “happiness is subjective, like the word ‘rich’”. “Some people can have little money and [still] feel content and rich. Regardless of your circumstance, it is always possible to be happy.”
Influences that lead us to miswant
A flipside, then, would be letting society or even other people dictate what we are pursuing as happiness. This is when ‘miswanting’ results.
For example, academic excellence and getting good grades is a common pressure shared by Singapore students, and this has led them to believe that good results, and nothing else, are pegged to their happiness.
Ms Hsieh says there are some people who face pressures as children from families and society. These people are often pushed to “[become] teachers or doctors when they grow up, with the thinking that by achieving these careers, they will lead good lives and hence become happy”.
She says this is ‘miswanting’, as these children will always be living the needs and wants of other people and as a result, they are pursuing goals that are not their own.
Ms Seah agrees. She says while belief systems on what frames happiness can be defined by the individuals themselves, “parents’ expectations and certain [outlooks] of relatives” can also influence somebody’s miswanting. An example would be living and fulfilling your parents’ dreams of having a doctor in the family, when you yourself have always aspired to be a theatre actress.
“When we live in such a manner, we end up not being true to ourselves,” Ms Hsieh says.
Adding, Ms Zheng says she is sure that everyone actually knows what he or she really wants – even rejecting goals imposed upon them by others. Yet despite this, external pressures do put a spanner in the works, causing people to doubt their own goals, and resulting in miswanting.
Ways to align true happiness with the correct goals
One way to reduce miswanting is through mindfulness or being aware of the moment while acknowledging and accepting your own feelings and thoughts.
Ms Seah agrees and says that she “reflects often”. This helps her to evaluate her wants regularly and ensure that they are still the very goals that will make her feel good in the future.
Such alignment can be met only by being “true to ourselves”, Ms Hsieh says.
“One way is to work backwards. You start with thinking of how you will [feel] in your final days, or to see every single day as your last,” she says. This will, in turn, help you gauge whether you are “truly living [your]core values”.
Another method to help reach true happiness with the things you desire is to be aware of the ‘operation of [the] psychological immune systems’ when it comes to negative future events.
What this means, according to Gilbert and Wilson in their Havard article, is realising that an adverse situation in life may not have affected someone as badly as he or she perceives because an ‘assortment of cognitive strategies and tactics will limit or repair the damage’.
Called the unconscious psyche of habituation or hedonic adaptation, it is the ‘human’s innate capacity to get used to things’ and it is often overlooked. In other words, something negative may happen in the future, but people adapt to the situation and move on.
A lack of awareness of this may worsen the negative feelings, resulting in miswants as people avoid what they perceive to be ‘unhappiness’.
Ms Zheng says she tries to avoid this by basing her happiness on health and well-being. “I set one small goal each day – simple ones like ‘I shall drink 10 glasses of water today’. Knowing that this keeps my body well-hydrated really makes me feel good about myself,” she says.
What are healthy wants
In a less literal way, healthy wants are should not be entirely dictated by past emotions to determine what actions to take or goals to set presently and in the future to achieve one’s happiness.
Ms Zheng believes that “chasing happiness [as] the ultimate goal [in life]” can be an unhealthy desire. “It is unrealistic, and most of the time we find ourselves even more lost than [when] we started,” she explains.
There is also the difference between ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ that adds to the fray. Wanting is a prediction of what someone will like in the future.
Ms Seah says that a healthy want would be focusing on what she likes, and not what she wants. To her, something more meaningful such as “a purpose in life” and “a sense of achievement” are equally important in bringing about her happiness.
Ms Hsieh cautions against the same thing. “I can’t emphasise it enough [that] happiness is definitely not something to be strived for,” she says. To her, being content and understanding “what matters to us in this life and [using] our time meaningfully” to achieve it is healthier.
“Happiness is a feeling [and a] state of mind. It can be disastrous to always pursue a state of ‘euphoria’ at a constant level,” she adds.
Instead, Ms Hsieh believes that people should strive to lead meaningful lives, and “let happiness come naturally”.