Thursday, April 19, 2012

Miswanting and (Misfearing)

What do you want right now? What would make you happy?

Think about it.

According to a study by psychologists from Harvard, the University of Virginia and Princeton, it might not make you as happy as you think.

Over the past several years, i've developed the opinion that a lot of decisions don't matter. I can't see the future, so how should i know which fork in the road will be best for me? I only feel this way about difficult choices where i can't find any clear advantages for either option, but this study suggests that even a decision that we feel 100% confident about might not be the best one in the long run.

Here's an example of miswanting:
I'm making a decent living in my current job, but i want to be able to save more money, so i look for a second job. I believe i'll be happy when i have more money coming in. I find a second job! I'm satisfied, but not as happy as i thought i would be. More money is coming in, but it doesn't make as big a difference as i thought it would, and now i have less free time.

The idea is that the happiness we think we'll get from something is actually not as intense or long lasting as we think it will be, as our mind quickly adapts. Have you ever finally acquired something you've been wanting, only to get over it disappointingly quickly? The expectation of happiness is like our mind dangling a carrot in front of us.

The flip side of the coin, according to this study, is that we misjudge negative events as well. We might think that a particular event will be horrible, but not actually suffer as much from it, when it happens, as we thought we would. This is another case of our brain exaggerating things to force us into action.

For example, we all fear the loss of our loved ones. This makes sense, as it's in our nature to protect our kin, so this is our brain motivating us to do so. When we do lose a loved one, it's hard. We grieve, but not for as long as we may think we will. Our "psychological immune system" kicks in and helps us deal with it.

So perhaps that thing you fear most won't be as bad as you think it will be. And next time you have to make a decision about your future, keep this in mind. It might just be your brain dangling a carrot in front of you. For those interested, here is a download link to a pdf of the study.


  1. people misjudge a lot of things and things they want but it plays out different that it does in their head so they dont like it I guess :P

  2. Great post, there has been times where I would want something very bad, and once I got it, the excitement went away quickly. I learned from this, and thank you for bringing this up.

  3. Whoa, this is really thought provoking! It gives quite a bit of insight into the phenomenon where sometimes the anticipation of something is better than the result. I think it has a lot to do with dopamine and our brains wiring the rush to make it happen earlier than when the actual event takes place.

  4. It is strange how this happens, for me it seems the process of acquiring what I want is more satisfying than actually acquiring it. I just accomplished a goal I've had for a few months only to get over it less than an hour later. Cool blog! following.

  5. I've heard about this study. There is a similar one where they interviewed elderly dying people about what are their regrets, and most of them regret not appreciating what they had, and wanting things they didn't actually need.
    The grass really is always greener.