Sally Engelhart | Making the choice to be happy
Scientifically Blonde | Big decisions rarely have a big impact on your happiness
January 25, 2012, 11:54 pm · Updated January 29, 2012, 11:16 pm·
When you’re a senior, toeing the line that marks the entrance to the real world, you’re forced to make a lot of big decisions. It seems like every fork you reach in the road has the opportunity to determine how happy you’ll be for the rest of your lives.
New York or L.A.?
Law school or grad school?
Which job should I take?
If I choose the wrong one, I’ll be miserable forever…
You won’t believe me right away, but I’m telling you that you can relax. You’re probably going to be just as happy either way, regardless of these choices.
According to Marie Forgeard, a fourth-year doctoral student at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, “happiness is something that you construct actively versus something that happens passively.”
Forgeard explained that there are different components that contribute to overall happiness.
While part of what makes us happy is predetermined by a genetic basis, about 40 percent is actively created by our actions and thoughts. Interestingly, only 10 percent of what determines our happiness is the result of actual events that happen to us.
It probably surprises most people that such a minimal amount of our happiness is determined by the outcome of our decisions. That’s because we naturally tend to overestimate how unhappy things will make us.
Consider this: Imagine getting dumped. You might predict that this would make you really unhappy. Lets say an 8/10 unhappy for three months. But in reality, you probably would only be a 6/10 unhappy for two weeks.
When bad things happen or when bad decisions are made, your cheerful demeanor bounces back much better than you might think it will.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert refers to this as our “psychological immune system.” He says we unconsciously change our views of the world so that we can feel better about the situations we find ourselves in.
In short, we genuinely synthesize our own happiness when we don’t get what we want.
People do this all the time, when they say things like, “failing BIOL 121 and dropping pre-med was the best decision I ever made.” Here, you didn’t get the outcome you initially wanted, but you’re happy about it. You have synthesized happiness.
So when you think that your decisions are make or break, they probably aren’t. You’ll probably be just as happy either way.
But, there’s a caveat. One thing that does tend towards unhappiness is making “reversible decisions.”
In a Harvard study, students in a photography class had to choose between two of their favorite prints from the course. Half of the students had the opportunity to change their minds and swap the print they chose for the rejected one. The other students were told that once they made their decision, their second print would be sent to “headquarters in England” and they would never see it again.
Believe it or not, students that faced the irreversible choice were much happier with their decision than students who were able to change their minds. When we have too much choice, we are prone to second-guessing.
It’s all part of something known as the paradox of choice. We think that we want unlimited opportunities, but too many choices overwhelm us.
We are actually happier when we have limited options.
In college and in life, we are often faced with countless opportunities tied to seemingly big decisions. It’s unlikely that schools will ever deliberately limit our opportunities so here’s how to make decisions you’ll be happy with.
When faced with a zillion options, stop trying to maximize your happiness and focus on satisfying it, Forgeard explained. Decide what values or criteria are important to you and when you find a choice that meets this minimum criteria, go with it.
Of course, the time and effort you should put into decision-making depends on the decision. You’ll want to spend more time deciding which graduate school to go to than what cereal to buy at Fresh Grocer, but the underlying principal is essentially the same.
So, stressed-out friends — relax. Yes, you have some big decisions lying ahead but the decisions that you make today won’t have lasting effects on how happy you’ll be for the rest of your life.
Happiness is actively construed and barely influenced by actually outcome. Your happiness is pretty much whatever you choose to make it.
Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.