Happiness: Do We Really Know What Makes Us Happy?

We think we know what makes us happy, but the science says otherwise. Our beliefs about what will make us happy are very often incorrect.

Happiness: Do We Really Know What Makes Us Happy?

Harvard professor, Dan Gilbert and his team conducted experiments to understand whether or not people really knew what made them happy [1].

The researchers experimented by creating a black-and-white photography course that allowed students to come in and learn how to use a darkroom. The students were told by the researchers to go around the campus, and take 12 pictures of memories they wanted to keep during their time at Harvard.

At the end of the course, the students were asked by the professors to select their two favourite pictures. These pictures were going to be printed on large and beautiful glossy paper.

The researchers then asked the students to give up one of the two photos that were printed. One picture is to be given to the professors as evidence of the class project, while the student can keep their favourite photo forever. The students were hesitant in giving up one of the photos - they generally wanted to keep both.

It's at this point that the experiment begins to get interesting. The researchers divided the students into two groups and told each group something slightly different.

  1. The students in Group A were told, "But you know, if you want to change your mind, I'll always have the other one here, in the next four days, before it's mailed to headquarters". In effect, Group A was allowed to change their minds and swap the photo they had chosen, if they were worried they had selected the wrong photo.
  2. The students in Group B were told precisely the opposite: "Make your choice, and by the way, the mail is going out to England today. Your picture will be winging its way over the Atlantic. You will never see it again." Once these students left the room, their choice was being made permanent.

The researchers surveyed half the students in each of the two Groups. They asked them to make predictions about how much they're going to like the picture that they kept and also the picture they left behind. The researchers used this to measure the students' satisfaction with the pictures they had chosen, over the next three to six days.

As the researchers had anticipated, almost all students expected to like the picture they chose a little more than the one they left behind. It wasn't even close.

The Results

The results showed that both right before the swap and five days later, students who were stuck with their choice of picture (Group B) - the ones who could never have to change their mind - like it a lot.

While the students who had the opportunity to swap their photos (Group A) were deliberating and questioning if they had made the right choice. They were wondering whether or not they should return the photo and ruminating on their decision. They trusted their judgement less as each day passed. Eventually, the students in Group B didn't like their picture. They regretted their choice. Even after the opportunity to swap had expired (putting them in the exact same position as the students in Group B), they still didn't like their photo.

The professors explained the findings of this experiment by concluding that "the irreversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness."

To confirm and validate the significance of their findings, the researchers conducted a final experiment, with a whole new group of naive students. These new students, like the last, were given the choice of swapping their photo within four days or never being able to exchange their pictures.

Sixty-six per cent of the students, two-thirds - preferred to be in the course where they have the opportunity to change their mind. It's ironic, 66% of the students are voluntarily choosing to be in the class in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with their choice.

We Don’t Know What Makes Us Happy

The experiment teaches us that we don't really know what makes us happy. Anyone who claims that they do is most probably unaware of their ignorance. Our beliefs about what will make us happy are very often incorrect.

We think having more choice will make us happy, but as the study showed, the opposite is true - we're often happier when we have fewer choices. More choice can be overwhelming. It can lead to suffering from what is referred to by psychologists as a paradox of choice. More options give us less satisfaction as we're less confident in making the best choice.

It can also lead to dissatisfaction, where our perceived happiness is greater than reality. We've all been in situations where we think we want something and when we finally obtain it, we're not as happy as we had been expecting. You want to buy a car because it'll make you happy. Some time after purchasing the car, you get used to it, and your happiness returns to the baseline. The car is no longer keeping you in the permanent state of happiness as you had been expecting. Now, you're chasing the next thing that would make you happy. You want to buy an even bigger car, to give you that feeling of happiness again and the never-ending cycle begins. It can be a dangerous trap to fall into.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people make their happiness conditional on external factors. For example, "I'll be happy when I buy a house". "I'll be happy when I get married". "I'll be happy when I get a promotion". These are what they think will make them happy, but the science shows that they're likely to be wrong. Conditional happiness is never a good idea, as it makes our happiness a moving target.

If your happiness is always conditional upon an external factor, you'll never be happy over the long term. To prove this, let's consider two potential scenarios.

  • You get what you want - you're only experiencing "temporary happiness" here because the novelty will soon wear off. At this point, you'll begin chasing the next thing you think will make you happy - the next "high". This pursuit puts you back in the unhappy state you were in before.
  • You don't get what you want - you'll be miserable because your happiness is conditional upon something you have been unable to obtain.

It's a lose-lose situation.

The absence of wants is what makes us happy.

Rather than making our happiness conditional on a future event, we should be happy with what we have now—satisfied with what we've got today. We need to wake up and realise that if we're not happy today, because our happiness is conditional on an external factor, and we're not happy when we finally get whatever it is we're pursuing, we'll never be happy.

If there's one thing you've taken away from this article, it should be that humans don't really know what makes them happy. We should avoid making our happiness conditional on external factors.


[1] Daniel T. Gilbert and Jane E. J. Ebert, “Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes.pdf)”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002.

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