The key to eternal happiness

February 4, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I recently came across an interesting blog post on a psychology website, written by Raj Raghunathan.  The title alone, Happiness Now, or Happiness Later?, evokes a series of questions:  Which is better?  Can we choose?  Can’t we have both?

We can have it both, as it turns out.  However, many of the things which bring us happiness now are not the same actions that will bring us happiness later.  This is not at all a new conundrum, and is in some ways similar to the want/should conflict described by economist Max Bazerman and colleagues, which arises when we have competing internal preferences.   I want to eat a big slice of that triple layer chocolate devil’s food cake right now, but should forgo it for my future self’s health and happiness.

But not all behaviour must be either-or.  The Happiness Now or Happiness Later article presented this in an interesting graphic:

      (Image credit)

I have written about the want/should conflict in the past, and more specifically about the use of commitment devices to temper or overcome the urge to do what we want so that we can do what we should.   But when we superimpose the want/should axes onto the happiness now/happiness later graph, it seems to give the whole issue a slightly different feel.

Whereas when looking at the issue as a want/should conflict it seems easier to think of the ‘should’ behaviour as somehow morally superior to the ‘want’ actions, this is altogether less clear to me when framed as a ‘happiness now’ versus ‘happiness later’ question.  In the latter framing, it seems much more obvious that we should seek out those actions that satisfy both – that bring us perpetual happiness you might say. 

While commitment devices can be really helpful to help get from Quadrant 4 (‘want’/‘happiness now’) behaviour to Quadrant 2 (‘should’/‘happiness later’) behaviour, ultimately we should all be seeking out Quadrant 3 behaviour in the first place.

We should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do.  And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too.

We should be wary of rationalising our Q4 behaviour as somehow being able to fall into Q3.  Trying to convince ourselves that junk food will make us better off in the long run is not the answer.  Instead, we might try to shift our Q2 behaviour over to Q3, that is, to make the behaviour we know we should be doing for the benefit of our future-self more enjoyable in the present.  This might be by actually making it more pleasant to do right now, for example with small incremental near-immediate rewards, or perhaps by an attitudinal reframing (“I know I should go jogging for my long term health, but I also really want to go out on that jog today because the sun is shining and I’ll feel great as soon as I’m done…” )

Of course, I don’t know what the key is to eternal happiness.  And writing this blog post has probably thrown up more questions to ask myself than it has provided answers.  But I love charts and graphs, so it is an interesting exercise to connect the want/should conflict with the happiness quadrants.  It may be a new way of looking at what may already be obvious to some: we should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do.  And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too.  Perhaps this is all easier said than done.  I’d love to hear you thoughts.

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