The Fishbowl of Happiness

This post is a journey between two TED talks.

If you spend much time browsing in bookshops like I do, you’ll probably have noticed there’s an ever increasing number of books promoting voluntary simplicity, slowing down, downshifting, thrift, returning to the ‘good life’ etc.

They all have slightly different ideas about what aspects of modern life we should be suspicious of, and what we can do to go about living simpler, more authentic and fulfilling lives. I quite like many of these books, which I think often contain good advice (though often inter-spaced with a lot of waffle and self-justification), but it seems not too many of them seem to consider why adopting a simpler lifestyle seems such an attractive proposition for many of us.

One of the reasons is anything but obvious: we have far too much choice to be happy.

We have more options open to us than ever before – what to eat, what to wear, what we do, where we work, where we go on holiday, what we watch on TV, what music to listen to, how to manage our health, what sort of lifestlye we want. It’s stressful to decide, and if we’re to make confident decisions we need to have done our research beforehand. We all constantly run the risk of discovering we’ve chosen badly and missed a better option or opportunity.

Henry Ford famously described the available range of  his cars with the phrase “you can have any colour you want so long as its black” (though he probably never actually said it). Later when we were able to exercise a little choice, our cars also began to make statements about us – a badge of our identity as consumers, a further layer of choice, meaning and complexity.

But we are now faced with so many choices on a daily basis that we are overwhelmed, anxious or even numbed by the prospect. We might make the wrong choice, or a sub-optimum choice. Are you on the best energy tariff ? Best mobile phone tariff ? Did you pick the best handset available ? Is your browser the most secure/user-friendly ? Do you have the optimal level of insurance cover ? What are you going to watch on TV tonight ? Have you set the recorder for everything you might want to watch ? What music are you listening to ? What great new bands are you missing out on ? What books (or blogs) are you reading ? Is your food or clothing as ethical as it could be ? Have you got the best deal on your next holiday ?

Postmodern life and in particular the internet is responsible – we simply have so much information and so many options available to us. What should be liberating and empowering tends to have the opposite effect and becomes stressful, exhausting and depressing. The psychologist Barry Schwartz describes walking out of a jeans store after an hour of trying on different pairs of jeans, and although he was wearing the best fitting pair of jeans he’d ever worn in his life, he felt worse about them than any pair before . . . he describes the various reasons why and examines the negative consequences of being surrounded by constant choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More“.

He also makes the observation that the rich world is surrounded by too much choice, which makes us unhappy, while those in the poor world have far too little choice.

But if too much choice is making us unhappy, what should we do ?

The answer is simple: lower our expectations and learn to be happy with what we already have.

Does this really work ? Can we do this ?

Yes, according to psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his TED talk Daniel describes the evidence for his view that we all can ‘synthesise happiness’. Synthetic happiness is what we tend to ‘fake’ in order to make ourselves feel better when we don’t get what we want, as opposed ‘real’ happiness, which is how we feel when we do get what we want. The common perception is that synthetic happiness isn’t properly real – just a story we tell ourselves to hide from the truth of disappointment.

In his talk Daniel describes Moreese Bickham, who spent 37 years wrongfully imprisoned in Luisianna State Penetentary, and upon being released said “I don’t have one minutes regret. It was a glorious experience”, and others who appear to have ‘synthesised’ happiness, to avoid facing a disappointing reality.

But recent clinical research indicates that ‘synthetic’ happiness is every bit as real, and that we can therefore become genuinely happier simply by telling ourselves that we are . . . and if we consciously limit our ambitions and lower our expectations, we are likely to find ourselves becoming genuinely happier and less dissatisfied with our lives, and by not constantly striving for more, become more likely to help improve the lives of those most at need in the world.

“Live simply so that others may simply live” - variously attributed to both Mahatma Gandhi, and Elizabeth Ann Seton

Photo by Bitterjug, via Flickr

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