How Do We Choose Happiness?

While no one can tell you what will make you happy (not even a psychologist!) there are some ideas that can influence your ability to attain this sometimes elusive state of being.

We often make decisions based on what we think will make us happy, and how we feel in the moment. Unfortunately, those decisions often grant us instant gratification rather than long-term happiness. A delicious meal might feel so wonderful at the time, but that feeling doesn’t seem to carry through the following weeks and months. Perhaps there was momentary happiness while dating the perfect partner, but the relationship doesn't last. We might feel elated when chosen among a group of highly competitive individuals for a dream job, only to find that we are filled with dread as Monday approaches. Each of these scenarios highlights ways we would expect to find happiness, so why aren’t we filled with a lasting feeling of satisfaction and joy? When I was in my early 20s and tormented with worries of becoming successful, I met with a very wise psychologist who said that you don’t chase happiness. She explained that you must make good choices and happiness will come.

But what does this mean- to make good choices? Daniel Kahneman, PhD gave a TED talk in 2010 discussing the cognitive science behind happiness. He explained that the way we feel is connected to how we think about the story of our lives. We define the story of our lives through the choices we make, especially as we navigate major events, such as transitions, endings and other significant moments. Transitions are the process of changing from one state or condition to another, for example: leaving home to start college, moving to a different city, starting a new job, entering a committed relationship, or becoming a parent. Endings can be defined as: breakups, divorce, or loss. Significant moments are events such as weddings, births, graduation, or traveling.

I remember when I was trying to choose between grad schools, I narrowed it down to Berkeley or Boston. I was pulled to Northern California because I had this dream about meeting a tall and dark handsome man and spending weekends hiking and camping in the great outdoors. Boston seemed boring and too close to my home in NYC, but I knew that I could get serious and focus on my studies without distraction (or at least minimal distraction). I agonized over this decision, finally accepting an offer in Boston. Choosing to move to Boston meant I had to let go of what I thought would make me content in the moment. I wasn’t happy when I first moved from NYC to Boston, but I had navigated this transition gracefully by making a choice that would bring me closer to achieving my goals. Just as my wise psychologist told me, I made a good choice and happiness followed.

No one person can tell you what the correct choice is for you. Another person living my life would have chosen to move to Berkeley, and that would have been the best way for them to achieve their goals. It is important to separate from your notion of what feels good right now, so that you can think about what will make you happy in the long run. As you navigate your life’s major events, which decision will help you feel satisfaction and joy when recounting the story of your life? You have the ability to listen to yourself, and although challenging, make the best decision even if it does not necessarily gratify you in the present moment.

Sophia therapists.png