MAKING LIFE CHOICES

[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 12] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D

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“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” ~Alfred D. Souza                                             

Life is filled with difficult choices, and making decisions about long-term goals can be especially challenging.  When we select long-term goals, we generally try to choose the ones we think will make us happy. But, accurately predicting our happiness can be very difficult because no matter what strategies we use to try to sort out what we want, we’re susceptible to cognitive biases that can mislead us.  To minimize the influence of these biases, it’s helpful to understand how they can affect the decision-making process.

BIAS #1: SELECTIVELY FOCUSING ON THE MOST SALIENT FEATURE – Most of us are inclined to selectively focus on one salient feature of a choice we’re trying to make, while overlooking or minimizing other features. Although the element we emphasize may appear to be the most important feature, by approaching the decision in this manner we’re likely to be underestimating the effect other features will have. To reduce the impact of this bias, we need to step back to look at the bigger picture, and give some thought to how we feel about the features we may be minimizing.

BIAS #2: OVERESTIMATING THE LONG-TERM EFFECT ON OUR HAPPINESS – A subset of the focusing bias is the tendency to concentrate primarily on how we think we’ll be affected by a decision in the short run, even if we’ll be living with the decision for much longer. It’s important to remember that over time we adapt to change, and as we adapt, the intensity of whatever we’re feeling about that change diminishes. In order to learn more about what it might be like to live with this choice over time, it can be useful to talk with others who have experienced it on more than just a short-term basis.

BIAS #3: PUTTING TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON THE OPINIONS OF OTHERS – All of us are susceptible to being influenced by external opinions and social pressures. Some of us may even trust the opinions of others more than our own. As mentioned above, it’s definitely a good idea to seek the input of others who may be able to offer us a different perspective, especially if they know us well and also if they have experience with the choice we’re considering.  But in the end, our own personality, values, strengths and interests should play a more prominent role in our decision than the opinions of others.

BIAS #4: TRYING TO MAKE THE “PERFECT” CHOICE – If we convince ourselves that there is a “perfect” choice, we’re likely to be disappointed. Further, those who look for perfection risk being caught in “analysis paralysis.” Instead of being immobilized by fear of making the wrong choice, we need to recognize that there is no perfect choice, and aim for a choice that’s “good enough.”

Beyond correcting for these cognitive biases, it’s important to remember what we’ve been discussing throughout this Happiness and Well-Being series: external factors account for only 10% of our happiness whereas the smaller choices that we regularly make account for up to 40% of our happiness (e.g. see Happiness and Well-Being, part 1).  We need to remain mindful of the fact that our happiness isn’t determined by making “perfect” decisions, and it isn’t a steady state.

Happiness has more to do with how we view and approach the opportunities and challenges in our life. It has more to do with making choices that are inherently rewarding for us, that add meaning to our life, and that honor our own values and strengths. And, it has more to do with cultivating significant social connections, with allowing ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the moment, with understanding what’s really important to us, and with being grateful for what we have. But, even knowing these things, the reality is that in the midst of dealing with the pressures and stresses we all experience, it’s easy to lose track of things that  give meaning to our lives, and instead end up focusing on things that don’t really matter in the long run.  We need to keep in mind that where we focus our attention influences not only the types of choices we make, but also significantly impacts our happiness and well-being. So, from time to time, it can be very useful for each of us to focus on the bigger picture and think about what truly matters. 

THE BIGGER PICTURE
Research on hospice patients offers a big picture perspective on the choices all of us make in life. Hospice workers interviewed their patients about the regrets they felt as they faced the end of their lives. The workers then summarized the top 5 regrets of their dying patients: (1) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; (2) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; (3) I wish I had let myself be happier; (4) I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self; (5) I wish I lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.

You can see from these answers that when the hospice patients came face-to-face with their mortality, it changed their perspective about some of the life choices they had made. Like most of us, they probably took a lot in their lives for granted, lost sight of their real priorities in the face of the pressures and stresses in their lives, and placed undue importance on some things that didn’t really matter in the long run. Because they were willing to share this perspective with us, we have the advantage of being able to use their wisdom to think about our own choices as we go forward. So, put some real thought into what it is that you value and what gives your life meaning and purpose.  Then, try to honor and live out your values, and factor them into both the big and small choices in your life.


ACTIVITY: SEEING THE BIGGER PICTURE IN YOUR OWN LIFE
Write a letter summarizing your life, your values and your accomplishments up until this point.

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  1. Of the things you’ve done, which are most meaningful to you?
  2. What memories bring you the most pleasure?
  3. As you think about what you want to put in the summary, what do you learn about your strengths, talents, interests, and values?
  4. Does thinking about these questions help you to recognize some things you might want to do (or do differently) as you go forward in your life?

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Biswas-Diener, R  & Dean, B (2009). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Biswas-Diener, R. & Diener, E. (2010). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Wiley Publishing. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. Penguin Group US. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Jane McGonigal “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfBpsV1Hwqs

 

If you haven’t yet read the eleven previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 11: Finding Flow