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We Have No Idea What Makes Us Happy

Psychologists say that humans don't really know what makes them happy

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Is this baby really happy? Image: Ben Millet

The sunny beaches and bright lights of California might seem like the solution to all your woes. But regardless of what the movies might say, moving to California won’t make you happier. A 1998 study suggested that people in the Midwest were just as happy with their lives as those in California. In fact, since 2000, over 1.6 million people have moved away from California.

We see California as a happy place because we really don’t know what a happy place looks like, Daniel Kahneman told Big Think recently. Kahneman says whenever we focus on one thing—money, location, career—in that moment, we believe it far more important than other factors in determining our happiness. “Nothing is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it,” he says. And most of us, even if we’re aware of Kahneman’s work, can’t do anything about it. The psychology simply runs too deep.

And that’s not all. Big Think writes:

As if blindness to our own tendencies to err weren’t bad enough, we’re emotionally committed to our bad decisions because of another bad habit Kahneman has identified – the tendency to trust our snap, intuitive judgments over better, more deliberative decision-making processes. Like all cognitive illusions, this one has a vestigial, evolutionary component: quick thinking keeps you safe from predators.

But what about the work that says our first judgement might be our better one? A study last year from the University of Alberta suggested that unconscious feelings and goals tended to be the right moves. “In the past few years, we recognised that some of Freud’s ideas on the unconscious mind were, in fact, correct and that a lot of our decision-making and a lot of our feelings are based on things that we’re not really aware of,” researcher Sarah Moore told the Daily Mail. But others suggest that gut instinct isn’t right at all. The Los Angeles Times published a rebuttal to the idea that our gut is where truth lies. After all, if our gut instinct was right the earth would be flat, right? In the rebuttal, David P. Barash, a professor of psychology, argues:

But such gut thinking poses another set of dangers to science. All too often, it bumps into scientific truth, and when it does, it tends to win — at least in the short term. Ironically, much of the time, scientific findings don’t seem immediately logical; if they were, we probably wouldn’t need its laborious “method” of theory building and empirical hypothesis testing for confirmation. We’d simply know.

After all, the sun moves through our sky, but it is the Earth that is going around the sun. Our planet is round, even though it sure feels flat under our feet as we walk. The microbial theory of disease only prevailed because Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and other scientists finally marshaled enough irrefutable evidence to overwhelm the alternative perspective: that things too small to be seen with the naked eye couldn’t possibly exist or have any effect on us.

So, back to happiness. Kahneman says that rather than focusing on short term movement or on warmer weather in California, people should think about their life goals. Big Think writes:

Much more important to life satisfaction than what car you drive or what state you live in are your life goals and how close you are to achieving them. Let me back up a bit. If your life goal at age 20 is to own a really great car, and by age 40 you’ve achieved this, your overall level of self-reported life satisfaction will likely be high. Likewise with moving to California. But as Kahneman has consistently shown, if your goal at age 20 is to become a great artist, and at age 40 you are living in California, driving a great car, and practicing law, chances are that you just can’t get no . . . satisfaction.

So stop looking for cheap tickets to the Golden State and start living your life. You might not know what makes you happy, but spending hundreds of dollars on a ticket for no reason certainly seems like a bad idea, gut instinct or not.

More from Smithsonian.com:
Big Sur’s California Dreamin’

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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