‘Tis the time of year for resolutions. Whether it’s making them, keeping them, or, more often than not, breaking them. The Internet is flooded with recommendations for what to do and how to do it. But there’s at least one important thing missing from all of this fuss: will your resolutions make you happier in the long run? How can you possibly know? A key to answering this question is understanding that there are two very different sorts of happiness: one that most often guides our lives, and one that actually should.
To illustrate the different sorts of happiness, I offer the story of the time I went out to dinner with a friend of mine. She works for a prestigious media company and she basically spent the whole evening complaining about her job. How she disliked her boss, colleagues, commute, and so on. Then, at the end of dinner she said, without any hint of irony, “Of course I love working at MediaLand.”
There is actually no real contradiction here. My friend is evaluating her work in one way (positively) and experiencing it in another (negatively). In work, life, and my book, Happiness by Design, I argue that it is our experiences that matter most to how well our lives are going.
This is not an uncontroversial position to take. Many happiness studies, especially those conducted by people trained in economics like myself, do not ask people how they experience their lives. Instead, they rely on vague, overall evaluative questions, such as, “How satisfied are you with your life overall?” It is less common to investigate experiences directly.
The difference between evaluations and experiences matters a great deal. Many studies have shown that what makes your evaluating self happy is very different to what makes your experiencing self happy.
Take money. Above $75,000 a year in the US, additional income only improves how people think about their lives overall, not how they experience their lives on a daily basis. Or getting married. Again, tying the knot is great for how people evaluate their lives, but it has little immediate impact on how they feel during their experiences. Middle age is the most miserable time of life according to evaluative measures of life satisfaction, but studies of experiences of happiness show that younger people are actually less happy than middle aged people. So, young people can seemingly look forward to better experiences of happiness with age but not better evaluations of their lives.
It’s the more immediate stuff that matters most to our experiencing selves. Mainly, our experiencing selves care about the activities we do and the people we spend time with. Work matters to your experiencing self not because of what step of the corporate ladder you have reached, but because of the sorts of activities and people that fill your working days. Personal characteristics, such as your income, marital or employment status matter less to how you feel as you go about your life than to how you think you feel as you go about your life.
The brain is of course truly wondrous but it also makes mistakes. I think that one of these mistakes is that our evaluations do not always care very much about our experiences. It takes someone only about five seconds to answer an evaluative question about how well their lives are going, suggesting the answer reflects what pops into people’s heads – rather than how people really feel during the experience of their lives.
How long have you really spent thinking about how a life change would impact how you feel on a day-to-day basis, rather than what it would be like to make the change, or the type of person that change would cause you would become? If something won’t ever feel worthwhile or pleasurable – that is, it won’t ever make you happy – it’s probably not worth doing at all. Happiness is not like money. You can’t ever recoup your losses. Lost happiness is lost forever.
If we allow our lives to be guided by evaluations and stories about what should make us happy, it should be no surprise that we aren’t. When considering a life change, or even just a New Year’s resolution, attend to what actually makes you feel good, rather than what you think should.
Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Director of the Executive MSc in Behavioural Science. He is a speaker at the What is Well-being? event, organised by the British Academy as part of the British Academy Debates series.