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Divining elusive elements of life

Nov 23, 2013 : 21:03 IST
Life’s goals make it an elusive journey. We long for something, and feel elated when we get it. But a little later, it may not seem that great anymore. Does it mean we are not happy anymore? No, it simply means our source of happiness keeps changing, observes Reshma Krishnamurthy Sharma.

A homemaker always dreamt of being in a full-time senior level job position. Once she actually started being in a hectic full-time professional responsibility, she admits she was craving to finish a year at work and go back to her old stress-free life and relish her quiet moments.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? If you analyze your reactions to life’s events, you will find that most of us are not sure as to what really makes us happy. It may be termed as “impact bias.” What does it mean? It refers to the errors we make in estimating the event that will make us happy and the duration for which we will be happy.

Is happiness an elusive state? Is this something that you attain after a long wait? Or do shorter, but treasured, experiences that need to be found in everyday life contribute largely in feeling good? There are many who wonder if larger goals in professional and personal lives will help in attaining more happiness... Or is it the small tangible and a few experience-rich ones that are will be ever-lasting with us?

Psychology professor at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says the problem is when we think about what will make us happy. It is our expectations that actually throws us off. He says we make mistakes in predicting how we will feel about something in the future.

What Gilbert and others with him have found is that we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions to future events. The future is still an unknown phase and we conveniently forget that the future will always contain several other events we can’t predict, some positive and some negative.

Suppose you have always longed to own a Mercedes. You work hard for two years and finally buy your dream car. Your excitement is at its peak as you park your car on your driveway for the first time. A month later, the Mercedes becomes a part of your life. And now you look for something else that will make you happy. You thought owning a Mercedes was the happiest thing in your life and that the happiness would last for long. You were wrong.

This is the impact bias. It’s not hard to see the impact bias happening around you. How many people have you met that mistakenly thought their career paths or new relationships would bring them happiness?

Lot of blogs have been written on some of the most common desires about people to be happy. Like winning a huge sum of money - maybe a lottery. Most people only think about the positives of winning and don’t consider everything else that might happen as a result of all that money. Avid spend thrifts may reason out saying every purchase adds to the bucket of happiness. Conversely, reducing your consumption, living more simply, and focusing on experiences can have a higher hand in making you happier.

The initial excitement may be too profound, but do remember that eventually that excitement is going to wear off. You’re left with a lot of money you can use to buy all new pleasures, but it decreases some pleasures you had before. Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation”.

It is a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. Over time, the excitement is pushed towards the emotional norm and we stop getting any pleasure from it.

Despite what you might expect, events don’t really increase or decrease the amount of pleasure you receive in life. All they do is shift where your pleasure comes from. Once that shift has taken full effect, you go back to your previous level of happiness and start from where you left off. So the good thing about it is that even a negative event in life may not really affect our life as much as we initially thought it would.

While we are living in the present, how can we make ourselves happier? It’s not that you should not plan for long term goals or perceived happiness. It is certainly wise to plan for tomorrow. But it is wiser not to ignore the present and immediate future. After all life is about choices.

You cannot change yesterday’s events and really cannot predict future or even predict how happy you will be after a year. So hold on to your present.
We’ve heard this so many times before that it sounds cliche, but it really is a classic: life is a journey. Indeed.

We might have a certain goal to reach, but when that is reach, we find yet another one to pursue. That is the whole purpose in life.

Being happy, the balanced way:

* Spend on others, especially people you are close to.
* Be time-aware, but don’t think of time in terms of money.
* Be passionate, but don’t obsess.
* Set goals that are reasonably challenging and reasonably achievable.
* Go for variety and surprise. Don’t keep doing the same thing.
* Prefer experiential purchases; avoid materialistic goals.
* Associate with happy people.
* The best way to predict how much we will enjoy an experience is to see how much someone else enjoyed it.
* Savour anticipation. Delay consumption.
* Treat your body like it deserves to be happy. Eat right and enjoy your sleep. Every single hour of sleep adds in making a person feel happy.
* Find happiness in the job you have now. Many people expect the right job or career to dramatically change their level of happiness. This is not to say you shouldn't aspire to get a job that will make you happier. Just don’t overestimate your happiness.
* Think and implement easy, quick, and effective ways that you can make your community a better place by being compassionate.
* Recycle happiness by reminiscing good experiences.
* Have deep, meaningful conversations with different people.
* Take a conscious decision to forgive people who have hurt you and smile more often.
* Pray or practice meditation. It helps in elevating well-being attitude.

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