I’ll Be Happy When

by David Bohl

We seem to spend a lot of time predicting what will make us happy (we call it daydreaming) and what will make us unhappy (we call it worrying).

What we’re really doing is wanting. We “know” what we want and don’t want, and what will make us happy and not happy.

And sometimes we’re right, of course. I’m pretty sure that having a wreck on my birthday and spending six months in the hospital mending from head injuries and broken bones would make me, at the very least, not happy.

On the other hand, most people are pretty sure that winning five million dollars in the lottery and quitting their jobs will make them happy.

Yet the evidence is that most people were happier before they won the lottery.

There is some interesting research on this topic, including some groundbreaking research done by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard, psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, economist George Lowenstein of Carnegie-Mellon, and Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman.

Before I talk about what the research shows, I’d like to take a moment and ask you to think about something. Why would so many talented professors be researching how to predict happiness? To me, it seems that they’re researching the idea of what makes us happy, and how we plan our happiness, because the issues in this research impact every part of our lives.

We plan, and worry, based on what we want and don’t want, and we live our lives around these plans. That’s a pretty significant area for research, don’t you think?

What’s interesting is that these professors have found that while we plan our lives based on how we think we’ll feel, we’re usually wrong.

We do know what we want, but we’re often wrong about how what we want will make us feel when we get it.

You know what I mean. You’ve bought a new car and driven it off the lot, then started feeling on the way home that you wished you’d bought the other car you looked at.

Dr. Gilbert, of Harvard, calls this “miswanting.” We think we want X, and we know that will make us happy. We know exactly what we’ll feel when we get it, but we often don’t feel that way.

And here’s something else to think about.

Suppose what you really want is to go to Harvard Business School. You know that’s going to make you happy. That is the big goal of your life. But, due to circumstances, you end up becoming a lawyer with a degree from, say, the University of Arkansas.

Every time you’re unhappy, every time you think your life is a train wreck, you’re likely to believe that the only reason you’re unhappy is that you’re a lawyer rather than a Harvard MBA. It’s very easy to set yourself up like this and believe that if you only had this thing you want, everything would be fine.

The truth is, you may know what you want, and you may be right about that, but we’re all less adept at knowing what will really make us happy, and how that will impact our lives over time.

What can we do to start being happy now, even though we want things in the future?

Start thinking about how happy you are now, and concentrating on feeling how really satisfied you are with your life.

Limit your thinking about “I’ll be happy when” to certain times of day. Spend the rest of your time living in the present.

Live through your fantasy in your head and imagine what it might be like if it doesn’t meet your expectations.