4 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging Your Happiness, And How To Stop It

Mostly, your happiness is under your control. In fact, only about 30% of your disposition is “inherited”, thought to be “unchangeable”. The rest is environmental factors and your own self-talk. So, if you think that part of you is just a Gloomy Gus no matter what, you may be right. But if you think you were just born miserable and that’s all there is to that, think again. 

Happiness: An Inside Job

A lot of your happiness has to do with the quality of the food you eat, the nature of your thoughts, the people you choose to surround you in life, and the way you spend your time and energy each day. But in some ways our brain, our motherboard, is wired to make us miserable. Comparing our lives against others, thinking that more stuff will make us happy, these are “features” that are built right into the circuity of our brains. Maybe the most annoying thing of all is that we don’t innately realize these things… we just think “the heart wants what it wants”. But it’s important to look out for these 4 things because they are important factors if you truly want to become happier. 

#1 We Don’t Want What We Think We Want

It’s Monday again, somehow, and as we grudgingly make our way to the office, we’re thinking if we could just make more money… or buy that new car… or get the latest iPhone, we’ll be happier. But that’s just not true most of the time. Why “most of the time”? Well, if you are not making enough money to survive, earning more money will indeed make you happier. But your happiness with that extra cash will level off surprisingly quickly once all your basic needs are met. 

To have “enough” really is enough… but we don’t ever seem to see it that way. We’re always striving for what we think we want, but our intuitions about what will make us happy are almost always wrong. 

For Happiness, Know Thyself

True, the new car or the latest gadget will make us happier in the short term, but we return to baseline pretty quickly. With rare exception, we think this thing is going to make us much happier than it actually does. 

We’re poor judges of what makes us happy, and it turns out we’re poor judges of what makes us sad too. This poor intuition of ours plays out in big and small ways all the time… it’s not just cars and electronics. Ask a college student how bad they will feel a week from now if they receive a poor grade today, and they may tell you they’ll be miserable. A week from now, life will still suck if they get a D in Biology today. But the truth is, they’ll get over it pretty quickly. We always get over it pretty quickly, whether the thing is good or bad.

Of course, it’s never a great thing when you don’t do as well as you hoped… but it’s not as bad as you think it is, either. 

A lot like that little red sports car isn’t as good as you think it is.

#2 Baseline Is Boring

Ultimately we don’t really know what we want, but we also get used to what we do have very quickly. The fancy stuff becomes run of the mill, and soon we want newer, fancier stuff. We’re always striving, but appreciating what we have does not come naturally to us. This is something that must be done consciously. If left to its own devices, our brain will always tell us we need more, new, better stuff. The marketing and advertising industries do everything possible to capitalize on this, to further your brain’s agenda. So does the media. And social media. Just about anything that wants your money, does what it can to capitalize on this inherent weakness of yours… that you bore easily. 

#3 Happiness is All Relative

Unfortunately, because we get used to things so fast, our baseline for happiness and what is acceptable is constantly changing. This annoying aspect of how our brains work doesn’t have a baseline for anything, actually… it’s all relative to what’s happening around us. 

What does this mean exactly? If you come home one day with a really great new car that I happen to believe is nicer than mine, statistically I’m more likely to buy a new car within the next year. Even if I can’t afford one, and don’t need one. (study: Kuhn, et al. 2011)

To Spite Our Face

What’s fascinating about this, is that we’ll even work to our own detriment just to one-up someone else. Solnick & Hemenway did a study that offered subjects two different options: $50,000 or $100,000. If the subject chose the $50,000, everyone else would receive $25,000 just for playing. But if the subject chose the $100,000, everyone else would receive $250,000 instead. Participants overwhelmingly chose the $50,000 so they’d be top dog in their own mind… even though they could have pocketed twice as much cash. (study: Solnick & Hemenway, 1998) Relatively speaking they had to be on top of everyone else, even if it cost them fifty grand to claim the spot. 

Similarly, as you might expect, our idea of a good salary isn’t based on any meaningful data such as the true cost of living, or what we really need to survive. Instead, it’s based on what we used to make at a different job, and also what Steve in Accounting makes. 

The bottom line is that we care a lot about where we stand, relative to other people. And we’re always working to maintain some kind of arbitrary “place”. But those reference points almost never hold real value in our actual lives, and don’t matter to anyone but ourselves.

I think about this quite a bit, with regard to everyday life. Our inability to stay in our own lane is the source of much sadness and strife in our individual worlds. What would our existence, collective and individual, look like if we each sat up and took notice of this?

#4 We Don’t Even Realize We’re Doing This

Bummer. We may be able to notice other people shooting themselves in the foot, or we can see in hindsight how a different action on our part could have yielded a different (perhaps better) outcome, but it’s very hard to catch ourselves in the act of actively disrupting our own happiness. Though we do it all the time.

I think one of the most important steps we can take toward building a happier “us”, is to pay heed to this one thing: We are wired with a kind of cognitive dissonance toward our own behavior: we don’t even realize what we are doing.

  • A week ago our world was coming to an end because of a D in Biology but now we’re out laughing it up and having burgers with friends. So dramatic!
  • We don’t recall how we swooned at the last iPhone, had to have it, and that we were over it within a month.
  • Our snarky comment in that meeting was really a strange attempt to stab at poor Steve in Accounting, because we heard he got a bigger raise than us. But we fail to see it.

Anti-Social Media

Social media is unfortunately a huge trigger for a lot of people. We look at photos of these people’s lives, Beyonce and our neighbor alike, and we paint a picture in our minds. We take those arbitrary reference points in our head and spin a “happiness story” about these people. But none of it is real. 

We try to rank ourselves somewhere in there, and though it’s not possible to do that, this is just another way we’re wired. We’re always making downward or upward comparisons. Subconsciously perhaps, though quite obviously, we rank ourselves against the people we scroll past. Some we look down upon, and some we look up to for some reason. Reality of course looks nothing like it does in our head… but we need to be wise enough to know that and stop the thoughts. Log off Facebook for a little bit and just live our lives, free of comparison.

Happiness, true contentment, is mostly an inside job. It’s largely within our control but also the kind of thing we need to make a conscious effort at. There are many forces working against our happiness, a surprising number of which are right in our own head. By simply knowing that this is how we’re all wired, then taking steps to actively counteract that in ourselves, we can make great strides toward meaningful happiness.

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