People often do things because they want something. Maybe you work hard at your job because you want to attain a level of success. Or you save money because you want to buy your dream house. It’s a very natural way to think about a goal—as a fixed end state that you work toward and hopefully achieve.
Built into the concept of wanting things is an unstated assumption: that if, through time, effort, or luck, we finally do get what we want, it will make us happy. But what if this assumption is wrong? Is it possible that getting what we want won’t actually make us happier?
Now, for the first time in history, that question is actually relevant. “Our ancestors knew what happiness was: happiness is what happens when you get what you want, and that never happens on earth in this lifetime,” explains Dan Gilbert. “And yet now we do have populations of people who do have everything they want, and guess what? They’re not all perfectly happy”.
Strange as it sounds, it turns out that getting what we want doesn’t actually make us happier—at least not for long. That’s because of a feature of our minds called hedonic adaptation, the gradual return to our baseline happiness level after a positive (or negative) event. Whatever goal we achieve, we quickly get used to our new situation and begin taking it for granted.
People who win the lottery, for instance, report 18 months after the event that they are no happier than they were before2. People who buy houses predict that they’ll be much happier in their new home, but in reality their happiness often doesn’t change when they move.
Another study questioned the assumptions of people who move to California in search of sand, surf, fast cars, Hollywood glamour, and perpetual sunshine, thinking those things will make them happy. The study compared people living in the Midwest to people living in Southern California and found that residents were equally happy in both places. “Some people might actually move to California in the mistaken belief that this would make them happier,” wrote David Schkade and Daniel Kanheman, the authors of the study. “Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”
This is not to say you shouldn’t have goals. In fact, having and pursuing meaningful goals is important to happiness, and research shows that when we’re making progress toward our goals, we feel happier and more satisfied with our lives. This can create a virtuous cycle: goal progress increases our subjective well-being, which in turn motivates us to take action toward our goals, and so on.
Nor do these findings mean that happiness is illusory and unattainable—just that reaching some idealized future end-state isn’t what’s going to get you there. Rather, it’s the process that counts—engaging in relationships, work, and activities that make you happy and fulfilled in the now, not in the imagined future. So whatever goal you set, make sure you’re enjoying the process. Because sometimes it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey itself.
1. Gilbert, D. (2013, June 23). Prof. Dan Gilbert — The science of happiness: What your mother didn’t tell you [Video file]. Retrieved from YouTube.
2. Ayton, P., Pott, A., Elwakili, N. (2007). Affective forecasting: Why can’t people predict their emotions? Thinking & Reasoning, 13, 62-80.
3. Saeki, M., Oishi, S., Lee, M., & Maeno, T. (2014). Life satisfaction judgments and item-order effects across cultures. Social Indicators Research, 118, 941-951.
4. Schkade, D. & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9, 340-346.
5. Wiese, B.S. (2007). Successful pursuit of personal goals and subjective well-being. In Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S.D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal Project Pursuit: Goals, Action and Human Flourishing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.