Desire v Happiness

There are things we want, and there are things that make us happy. Realizing that these are overlapping but distinct categories is one of those things I really wish someone had told me growing up.

I imagine this is true for most or all people; Swinging through manic-depressive phases has made it particularly true for me. On the desire side, a cursory examination of the basic desires generated by my brain in extremely manic or depressed states suggests that they would result in terrible unhappiness. The manic brain’s desire to go for a bike ride at 3:00 am when I have a meeting in the morning will probably not make me happy; the depressed brain’s idea to stay inside and never talk to anyone is even worse.

Daniel Kahneman’s happiness research suggests that even when our desires/fears and hedonistic responses line up, we overestimate the hedonic impact of almost everything. Things generally don’t make us as happy (or sad) as strongly or as long as we expect them to. We get over achieving our dreams and crushing defeats.

Which is to say I kind of wish people would stop saying “Follow your heart” and the like. Some hearts give terrible directions, and even when they don’t, they’re still poor predictors of our happiness. Sure, listen to your heart. Listen to it over time, but don’t follow it blindly. Listen to it under different circumstances. Listen to it in quiet moments and in the midst of chaos and see how much your heart agrees with itself.  Also go read some research on how happiness actually works (hint: reduce your commute).  Were complicated, and the base-desire-generating process that was optimized for surviving in the Savannah probably isn’t optimized for actually achieving happiness (in any environment!).

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