Surprising research on lottery winners shows us that we are bad at predicting what actually makes us happy.
An investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tunas. The banker complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The fisherman replied, “Only a little while.”
The banker then asked the fisherman why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said that he had caught enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The banker then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, then stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I have a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor. This will eventually allow you to open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution.”
“Hmm, and then what happens?” asked the fisherman.
“You would get to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise,” the banker excitedly replies.
The fisherman looked unconvinced.
“But how long will this all take?”
To which the banker replied, “15–20 years.”
“But what then?” asked the fisherman.
The banker laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions, huh — then what?”
The banker thought about it for a while, “Well, I guess then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
Are You the Banker or the Fisherman?
When I was growing up, I — like many others — allowed the people in my life to dictate what should bring me happiness. And boy, are Asian parents good at that.
Get good grades at school, they said. So, I did. Then what?
Go to a good university and get good grades there, they said. So, I did. Then what?
Get a good corporate job at a Fortune 500 company. So, I did. Then what?
Then you will feel happy, they said. But they were wrong.
Like the banker, I was chasing external metrics to make me happy, only to find that the things that made me happy were accessible to me all along.
I realized that it wasn’t the grades I wanted, but social belonging; it wasn’t the job I wanted but financial security, and it wasn’t money I wanted, but the freedom.
Once I really thought about the things that made me happy, it was easy to see that I was chasing the wrong things. It became clear to me that kindness could bring social connections, that I didn’t need a corporate job to create financial freedom, and that traveling on very little money could bring me joy.
Happiness was a lot more accessible as soon as I stopped allowing someone else to define it for me.
So, here’s my question to you.
Who is defining your happiness for you?
When was the last time you sat down and thought about what happiness means to you? Not what goals you want to achieve, but what you think will actually make you happy?
If you haven’t, I’m going to invite you to do a simple thought experiment to help you identify if you are currently the banker or the fisherman.
The 2-Minute Exercise
Here are the questions I asked myself to help me tap into the things in my life that were already providing happiness:
What is it that you expect to feel when you achieve what you are chasing? E.g. You are putting all your energy towards a promotion. You expect you will feel a whole lot happier once you get it.
Are you sure that achieving your goals will make you feel that? Do you know someone who has achieved that career level? Do they seem happy? If not, what makes you think you will be? If yes, can you guarantee the same thing will happen to you?
If someone told you that you will definitely NOT achieve your goal, can you find something in your life that will provide that same feeling? If having more time to relax is what you think more money will provide you, is there another way you can achieve it if you don’t get your promotion?
Is that feeling achievable today? Can you already find more time to relax today? Is there something that already gives you that feeling of calm?
If you find yourself feeling like this exercise a waste of time and that there is no way simply reframing your life can increase your levels of happiness, let me share some surprising research with you.
The Surprising Research on Happiness
If someone asked you how you thought you would feel after winning the lottery, what would you say?
The obvious answer for most of us would be that we expect to be much happier after winning the lottery. Yet, we would likely be wrong. A classic study conducted on 22 major lottery winners found that their levels of long-term happiness did not significantly increase a year later. In addition to that, they also reported deriving less joy from “mundane pleasures” such as talking to a friend or receiving a compliment.
If you got the answer wrong, don’t worry. It seems everyone is really bad at predicting how we will feel about an event in the future — something psychologists refer to as Affective Forecasting. Furthermore, we are especially bad at predicting how happy we will feel when it comes to money.
For example, research shows that having strong social relationships would make you as happy as increasing your income by 150%, a shorter commute would make you as happy as getting a 40 percent raise, and having more free time will make you happier than having more money, and yet most people still chase money as a path to happiness.
So, we spend much of our lives chasing money as a proxy to happiness.
This was what I was doing too until I came across the research of Harvard psychologist and the best-selling author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert. Professor Gilbert’s research shows that we can actually synthesize happiness. As in, we can create it for ourselves. He says,
“We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.”
What does he mean by synthesizing happiness? Here is an example of a process you can go through to find the happiness that is already available to you:
Questioning our assumptions — e.g. is it really true that you are the worst mother in the world?
Identifying opportunities from negative events — e.g. maybe getting laid off finally allowed you to focus on your passion project or find a company that actually values you.
Prioritizing experiences over material possessions — e.g. spending money on a vacation with my family instead of a new car.
Changing the self-talk in your head — e.g. breaking up was a good thing after all because it allowed you to find a more fulfilling relationship.
When things are changing rapidly in the external world, happiness can seem elusive. But the research shows that feeling happy can be simpler than you think, as long as you remember these two fundamental truths:
We are bad at predicting what will and won’t make us happy in the future. So, the only reasonable thing to do is to appreciate the things that make you happy today.
We have the ability to synthesize happiness. So, don’t spend your life chasing things outside of you that you think will bring you happiness.
Go enjoy that perfect cup of coffee, play with your children, spend time with your spouse, hang out with your friends, and sleep. Don’t wake up 20 years from now as the investment banker wishing you were the fisherman. Be the fisherman today.
“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.” — Sir Thomas Brown
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