Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Chasing Rainbows: The Search for Happiness

By Ginny Anderson and Rebecca Bush, guest bloggers from the Family Life class
(Part one of two)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “happy” as “Having good ‘hap’ or fortune; lucky, fortunate; favoured by lot, position, or other external circumstance.” The underlying assumption of this definition is that the condition of happiness is derived from the fulfillment of outside desires—the next promotion, the better body, the new spouse, the beach vacation, the crème-filled donut. However, we purport that this is an archaic definition for one of humankind’s most fundamental emotions. Happiness is far more ephemeral: it is El Dorado, it is Brigadoon, it is Shangri-la.

In a 2004 New York Times article entitled “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness,” Jon Gertner discusses a study by eminent psychologists and economists on the human ability to predict future happiness. The study concluded that humans often overestimate the intensity of their emotions toward any given event and the duration that they will experience those emotions. There is always a discrepancy between what people predict that they will feel in response to something and what they actually experience. Gertner uses the example of purchasing a new car, saying, “We might believe that a new BMW will make life perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; nor will it excite us for as long as predicted….[This] characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy.” Instead of material gains or fleeting experiences, the study shows that friendships and social interaction are among the few things that give “lasting pleasure.”

According to the study, happiness is a temporary state, much like anger, infatuation, anxiety, or lust. It has far less to do with the good and bad events that occur over the course of one’s life than it does with the human brain’s very cyclical regulation of emotional highs and lows. Decisions made in an emotional “hot” state rather than in a “‘cold’ state of rational calm” do not result in the pleasurable outcome that one envisions at the time, often bringing unforeseen consequences. Thus, it is unwise and even potentially detrimental to make serious life decisions based on transient and anticipated emotions like happiness. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the context of marriage and family life, we find that marital satisfaction is also of a cyclical nature. This has significant implications for the choice to divorce and the future effects thereof.

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