Last week I wrote about the search for happiness and how elusive it can be. This week I want to focus on how of many of us actually choose to be unhappy.
Take, for example, a man I saw some time ago. He was 30, and came in for psychotherapy because he was unhappy with his life. He complained of loneliness and how he desperately wanted to be in a loving relationship and was tired of being single and of meaningless sex. Then he met someone, got married and was ecstatic. At some point he pitched up again to see me, miserable and distraught.
He explained that his wife had left because he’d had an affair. It was a fling with the hottie from the marketing department at a team-building weekend. As almost always happens, it became public knowledge, and in no time it leaked to his wife. She confronted him, and he did what most men do in such situations: lied like hell – which only infuriated her more.
And so there he sits, on my couch, weeping, head in hands, asking “How could I be so stupid?” (This example could easily apply to a woman). Turns out my patient is not that unusual in making decisions that will adversely affect their happiness. Recent research indicates that all of us are vulnerable to making bad decisions when it comes to our future.
Psychologists have identified certain faulty decision making patterns in our thinking which often work against our making the best long-term decision for our happiness. Consider this example given by Hsee and Zhang at the University of Chicago: Imagine you are offered two jobs. The first is an interesting job that pays R250 000 a year. The second is a boring job that pays R265 000. For argument’s sake, imagine everything else is equal. Which do we choose?
Their research shows that consistently people will overestimate the importance of the R15 000 compared to how interesting the job is. Thus people will tend to choose the boring job even though it makes them miserable, and the extra money might well make little difference.
Further research by Hsee and Hastie indicated that even when we know what will make us happy, we still don’t choose it. They identified the following reasons why we get it wrong:
- We all have rules of thumb that we live by. For example: don’t waste – We hate to waste money. So when, for example, we have double-booked an activity, we will choose the one that is more expensive even when we know we won’t enjoy it as much.
- We all like our decision-making to appear rational. Unfortunately, decisions that appear rational can also make us less happy. For example, research shows that most people would prefer to receive a gift of a chocolate shaped like a cockroach over that shaped like a heart, even though they know they will prefer the heart-shaped one. Why? Because they are told that the cockroach-shaped one cost R20 and the heart-shaped one cost R5. It is more rational to choose the higher-priced gift, but it makes us less happy.
- People just love to collect tokens of value, whether it’s air miles or points to be redeemed. In fact, we love collecting the tokens so much, we quickly forget what they’re for. People will strive hard and pay a lot to obtain tokens while paying little regard to what the tokens can be used for. Hence our attachment to certain credit cards and the need to use them to pay for everything.
- Finally, one of the major causes of unhappiness in our lives is the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses”. Research by Solnick and Hemenway indicates that this phenomenon i actually does exist. Consider the following: People prefer to earn R50 000 a year while everyone else earns R25 000, instead of earning R100 00 a year themselves and everyone else R200 000.
It’s not how much we earn, but how much we earn in comparison to other people. It’s the social comparison, then, not the actual amount of money, that affects how we feel about it. Therefore, if we drive a particular car, we may be perfectly happy with it initially, but we become unhappy with it if, in our new block of flats, it is the cheapest car in the car park. We may therefore purchase a more expensive one to feel better. Soon, however, we become really miserable when we discover it is costing us so much, we have to cut down on the things that really made us happy in the first place.
So become aware of your thinking patterns and then choose wisely. Your future happiness depends on it.
- Rafiq Lockhat is resident psychologist at Men’s Health magazine