The magic of happiness over time

These are difficult times. The world has come to a standstill and we are suddenly facing an invisible threat that is taking lives all around us. What makes this crisis even harder is that the threat comes from fellow humans. When we normally seek comfort with each other we now have to distance from friends and loved ones. And then there is the uncertainty…

We don’t know what is going to happen or how long this situation will last. We can’t plan and we don’t have control. These are traits that are at the core of what makes us human. Our ability to imagine things and to predict a future. But this ability is also flawed. Our frontal lobe is responsible for planning but also for anxiety.

It’s our biased vision of the future that creates the biggest problems right now. Because our ability to vision the future is not objective.

When we remember past events we don’t actually remember the details. We remember an subjective version and fill in the details based on our current reality.

We forget not only the details of our experience but also how we actually felt in that moment.

And we make the same mistake looking to the future. It’s a known fact that people who live through dramatic events like earthquakes or tsunami’s do recover and find joy. Because joy and happiness is relative not absolute.

The same way we get used to a state that brings happiness, and stop being satisfied with this after a while, we also get used to a new state, and find happiness in that state. This phenomenon is called the experience-stretching hypothesis: Once you know something exists and have experienced happiness/sadness from it, then your definition of happiness/sadness changes compared to what it was.

We tend to use the present as a template to imagine the future. Even scientists and experts make this mistake. That’s why we are surprised at big changes, even though they have occurred before. But it also limits us to imagine a brighter future during times of crises, because we base too much of this view of the future on today’s reality. Change will come again and humans are very adaptable and will change as well. And the future will again be a place of happiness. Maybe not like the place we knew before, or like the place we imagined back then, but happy in its own new way.

Recommended reading: “Stumbling on Happiness” by Prof. Daniel Gilbert