In the last few decades there has been a lot of research on human happiness. Surprisingly, Daniel Gilbert found that we are bad at predicting our own happiness, thus we don’t so much steer our way to happiness as stumble into it. (See links to books below.) Gilbert’s researches something called “affective forecasting,” the forecasting of future emotional states. Needless to say this is important since our decisions, preferences, behaviors, and the quality of our lives depend on our assessment of future states.
Why are we so bad at predicting future happiness? Researchers have found that cognitive biases–impact bias, focalism, immune neglect, projection bias, misconstruels, cause forecasting errors, time discounting, expectation effects, memory, and emotional evanescence–are the cause. I accept the research, but what should we do with this knowledge?
Obviously, if the goal is to be happy, we should minimize the cognitive biases that mislead us. To do this we might develop our critical thinking skills, reflect more deeply about our choices, study the feelings of, and consult with, others, and try to better understand our own psychology. But there is no foolproof way to proceed. We would do best to cultivate wisdom, that slow accumulation of experiences as to how best to live. For instance, experience has taught me that I need to exercise to be emotionally stable, write to express myself, drink and eat less to think more clearly, and converse with others to escape the prison of loneliness. As Socrates advised long ago, we should strive to “know thyself.”
But there are no shortcuts.
If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very difficult, still, it can be found. Indeed, what is so rarely discovered must be hard. For if salvation were ready at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things noble are as difficult as they are rare. ~ Baruch Spinoza