Why Our Happiness Expectations are So Bad (Science of Well-being Course Week 3)

The content for Week 3 of the Science of Well-being course explained why we are generally so bad at predicting what we think what would make us happy. Professor Santos called them “Annoying Features” of our minds, and referred to the erroneous judgment for happiness outcomes of these Annoying Features as “miswantings”, a term coined by psychologists Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert. It’s a term which I rather like and will use in discussion of happiness, or lack thereof, with others I know to whom I am humbled that some people turn to discuss rough spots in their lives. There was a lot of video content, which I will summarize and discuss below, with how I compensate for these Annoying Features to keep myself pretty happy generally, allowing for some sadness and other negative feelings to give the happiness more meaning through relativity. My compensation solutions aren’t discussed in the class but that’s my value add with this blog post. Professor Santos had an extensive list of reference articles of research to support her teachings, but I’ll leave them out since many probably won’t care for them. If you do to that level, I suggest signing up for the course on Coursera and taking it for free.


1. Bad intuition

Our strongest intuitions are bad. This is despite knowing what we know, some times, like optical illusions that we still have trouble believing with our eyes.

I don’t know if I’d have characterize it as that. I have generally found my intuition to be pretty good. It’s far from perfect, of course, but I wouldn’t put it in the bad category. Mind you, I am a pretty rational person and I make sure I answer various things to myself before buying a lot of things, or even trying some things, that I think will make me happier. It is almost like having a checking protocol. However, that protocol is not often wrong any more, but maybe that’s because my intuition has been well-trained by now to do it subconsciously?

To be fair, a lot of the things I’m talking about aren’t the big things people think would make them happier, when I was talking about my intuition above. But I did realize long ago I didn’t need a huge amount of money from my job to make me happy, and I haven’t upped my desired salary despite having doubled my salary from a decade ago. That’s been its own challenge, though, cause I sometimes end up getting compared against some people for whom money is a big driver to monetize what they do, when I couldn’t care less and would rather keep money out of it. For example, I sew better than some people making costumes and clothes for money. But because I don’t feel I need any more, I’d rather not do it, or do it and give it away as if I were still some amateur. I am at some levels, but not at the levels some people turn “pro” at just because they needed the money and was willing to put up with unhappy customers!

Having a better body through athletics has actually made me happier for the long-term like I thought, but I did it for health and am happier for the health benefits, not vanity. I does feel good having a nicer body, too, though, I have to admit, and that hasn’t worn off in 20 years going from a scrawny, wimpy looking kid (in my 20s) to just being a scrawny looking one, lol. Actually, I might look that but some people who have drawn me in life drawing classes have told me I looked like I just stepped out of an anatomy book! That’s about as good as a body compliment gets for me! 😉


2. Picking terrible reference points

This was actually framed as our minds don’t think in absolutes, but rather relative terms. That we pick poor reference points with which to compare ourselves is then stated as the problem with thinking in relative terms. That framing was a bit misleading, in my opinion, seeming suggestive that we should think in absolutes. Context is everything, especially picking good reference points to get the true context of something. My Life Theory of Relativity is “everything is relative”. That’s even if you pick bad points of reference, which is the ultimate reason why we are bad at thinking we know what would make us happy. We see unrealistic people, situations, and such, all the time through TV, social media, and we think that’s where we have to be to be happy, rather than realize there are a lot of good things in our lives if we just thought about it like the gratitude rewirements from Week 2. If you were still not sure, listen to this interview with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website, regarding his book Enlightenment Now.

I find picking the “right” reference points hard for balance to keep drive and motivation, and not to become too greedy, whether material wealth, or accomplishments. How much should you be satisfied with, in other words? I usually decide through the Law of Diminishing Returns. I appreciate where I am for what I have or have done, and gauge if I want to put in what I think is the required effort to get further to some extent that I want. That way, I get the appreciation of where I am so I don’t lose sight of the real world, as well as a fair assessment about going for more. But sometimes, it’s still hard to separate the two, especially when it comes to having enough of something in my hobbies like fabrics and art supplies, with something inside trying to justify getting more, still, for whatever reasons I can come up with like new project ideas, because I live well within my means and can definitely afford to get it without any impact on my cash flow.

3. Getting used to situations

Humans are extremely adaptable, physically and mentally, with the latter even far more resilient than the former, for many people pushed to their limits. That’s why you hear about “mind over matter” so much. While a lot of that is about dealing with the bad and/or self-discipline (which usually means not getting into something bad), it applies equally to the good. We get rich with a windfall, and we’ll get used to that new lifestyle quickly enough that it’ll lose its edge and we’ll want more, or something else. We get a new look through surgery or achieving some fitness or weight loss level, but that novelty wears off. We accomplish something good, and soon, we want something great. You find a hot partner and soon, you want another one as you get used to them and/or people stop talking about you and them… a problem serial daters can’t resolve. It’s all under a term called hedonic adaptation, which means what it sounds like, adapting to pleasures.

Being a constant and life long learner, with many interests, limits the impact of novelty in life wearing off on me. It’s similar to the serial dater example mentioned above, except that I’m generally not affecting anybody’s lives negatively like dumping them or cheating on them in a relationship, for example. My hobbies and things I learn often involve people in that they are about people, whether individuals or together as society, but not involve people in an interactive way where what I do or don’t do with respect to my learning and hobby activities affects them, or affects them much. Some things I do work on with people, and I’m sure some would wish I weren’t so slow at moving things along at times due to lack of focused dedication to them, but that’s about as bad as it generally gets. I get things done when it comes to hobbies, though, just not always, perhaps not often, in the time I hope. And I’m much better for punctuality when it comes to the serious stuff in life rather than just hobbies.


4. Lack of awareness for hedonic adaption

If we could better anticipate, or be aware, that things which make us happy wore off, we could better predict what would make us happy, especially for the big things we thought would get us eternal happiness. However, we aren’t good at this, either. Arguably worse than hedonic adaptation where you have to be in the situation for it to take effect, this can happen during the experience to keep us from realizing why we might be spiraling out of control in a certain lifestyle, but also after to keep us from making the same mistake again. An example of the latter would be how people continually overestimate the impact of something good, or even bad, happening to them despite having gone through the experience several times! You’d think they’d be aware of the impact from previous times to recalibrate their estimates, but most don’t seem to be able to! It would certainly explain why it’s so easy to relapse into all those things we try to get ourselves away from that supposedly makes us happy, but does not for long, and usually with consequences, like food, alcohol, sex, drugs, etc. 



So if most people were:

  • Bad to guess what would make you happy to start with;
  • Terrible at choosing reference points to gauge where you are and should be for those things you think would make you happy in the first place;
  • Adaptable to the impact of all the good things you get till they become the norm; and
  • Blind to how well you adapt to, or adapted to, the good things you will get, are having, or had;

Is it any wonder, then, most people don’t manage the 40% they can control of their happiness well? Your genetic predisposition controlled about 50% while life circumstances controlled for 10% to round it out. Most people aren’t generally unhappy because I wouldn’t say most people are struggling with that 40%, and have enough from the other 60% to keep them afloat. However, I think a lot of people realize that’s all their doing, is being afloat like in a life jacket or treading water, despite being in what is otherwise an oasis where they could be doing so much more to be happier, but don’t know what more they can do. That, apparently, starts the next lesson, with some of the rewirements documented so far, and expected of the class in the future, being part of a multi-action suite of answers.

I want to make one other note while on this topic of expectations and happiness. Expectations management, in my opinion, is a huge part of controlling happiness. A lot of it relates to Annoying Feature #2 about relativity with which to gauge where we are or where we want to be with respect to certain things. Sure, ideal jobs, love, perfect bodies, etc. won’t provide you with eternal happiness. However, some extent of it can form their parts of a happiness base on which other things can build, because it’s not like once their effect to make you happier wear off, they contribute nothing to your happiness. I don’t think that was communicated well in the course. They just don’t contribute as much as you think they would, or used to at some point when you first got it and for some time after. That’s how you have to look at it. I think I’ll have to write a bit about that after this course is over, with more context of other information to be learned.

Now, when I say expectations management, I don’t mean reducing it all, like comparing yourself in a first world country to someone in a third world country all the time to realize how much better off you are already, no matter where you are. There are times and places for that, but to my point earlier about finding the right balance to be satisfied with what you have, while not short changing yourself to sacrifice drive to become more, setting the right expectations can be all the difference in the world to make you happier. I tend to analyze my expectations and challenge not only my intuition for where they should be, but also my rationale and conclusions from previous iterations of analysis. I am not afraid to refine those expectations, usually upward just as much as downward, because I set small goals first, within a bigger picture context or outcome that I fully realize may get changed with time and goal accomplishments. Those small goals are realistic, keep me grounded, and like a drug, gives me a hit of happiness as I accomplish them. Having many goals in many areas at a time keeps me from hedonic adaptation on that “accomplishment drug” because it’s a different feeling to accomplish something physical like meeting a race time or distance, getting to another stage in a relationship, finishing a hobby project or course.

I’ll put it all together in a post after the course is over on how I handle happiness. I hope you’ll join me then if you were following this series of posts on the Science of Well-Being course I am taking. 🙂


To see more posts related to the Science of Well-being course, please click here.

And click here if you want to register for the Science of Well-being course, by Professor Laurie Santos, free on Coursera!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.