Do We Even Know What “Happiness” Looks Like?

A lot of us misidentify our own “bliss”

Kris Gage
May 27 · 6 min read

A few years ago, a friend of mine suddenly got into fencing.

As you can imagine, this kinda came out of nowhere. He’d never mentioned fencing before, had never picked up a sword (excuse me, épée), and as far as I knew wasn’t just tying to find another use for his beekeeper outfit.

He was, of course, certainly entitled to be interested in fencing, and I’m not one to knock people’s dreams, but I’d be lying if I said my first thought when he shared this was anything but a knee-jerk reaction of, “dude, where did that come from?” (His answer? “A colleague does it and said it’s kinda cool.”)

So, flash forward about a month or two: my buddy’s doing fencing camps and taking classes and working with private coaches. Guy fences at least once a week, can tell us all about the gear and the positions and the rules, thinking about entering competitions soon…

And I’m sure some of you are thinking this story ends with him saying this was his new life passion and telling us how happy it made him, but it doesn’t. On the contrary, it ends a whole lot more accurately: he wasn’t sure.

Talking about it over drinks, I said, “damn, you must really be enjoying it!”

“Actually,” he laughed, “I don’t know if I do or don’t. Every time I go, I wonder if it’s going to be the last time, but then every time I leave, I end up going back again.”

And it sort of begs the question: is this happiness, or not?

We pressure ourselves to “find our passion,” yet so few of us even know what that means

We have no idea what would make us happy.

We don’t know what “happy” is even as it hit us in the face.

We have no idea what will make us happy

Humans are notoriously bad at guessing what we want.

In his Ted Talk “the surprising science of happiness,” Dan Gilbert discussed “impact bias,” which is the tendency for us to believe that outcomes are more different than they really are.

“Here’s two different futures… tell me which one you think you might prefer: One of them is winning the lottery… And the other is becoming paraplegic.”

The audience laughs. Everyone, of course, thinks they’d rather win the lottery.

But if this is your assumption, Gilbert continues, then,

“You failed… Because the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.”

Gilbert cites “free choice paradigm,” which is, in short, the concept that we like a thing more the minute we choose it — not because we know we’ve chosen it (e.g., the case of my buddy, above, who still wasn’t quite sure how committed he was to this “fencing thing”), but because the act of choosing changes “affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions.”

“Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”

We don’t know happiness even when it’s right in front of us

We deliberate, we say we aren’t sure. Given the choice to answer “maybe” or change a “yes” to “no” or say we’re not sure, we very often will. (And we’re just as likely to complicate things by saying and even thinking we’re happy when we know we’re not — and vice versa.)

So how are we supposed to know?

We keep looking for happiness rather than cultivating it

Some would argue that “if it’s not a hell yeah, then it’s a no,” but life doesn’t really work like that.

Another thing from Gilbert’s talk, and a point many people miss: we can create happiness — we do so by “creating,” e.g., synthesizing it:

“Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.”

How do we do this? According to Gilbert’s research, but making a thing our own.

After all, as Hamlet said in scene 2,

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

With this in mind…

Gilbert would probably argue that my “fencing” buddy, above, is happy. Or rather, that he could be, if only he stopped seeing fencing as something he’s half-in on. (And that his problem of feeling unsure isn’t because he actually is, but because he’s leaving the option for “uncertainty” open.)

But is this really true? And is the suggestion that my buddy throw himself headlong into fencing — hell, become a coach himself — and, in the absence of certain happiness, just throw himself at it more, never pausing to really figure out but does this actually make me happy? I just find this suggestion hard to believe — and frankly, a bit negligent.

Because isn’t the opposite scenario just as scary: that my buddy, in his pursuit of happiness, dives headlong into fencing (at Gilbert’s seemed suggestion), choosing, committing and calling it his “thing” hoping that doing so will make him love it (Gilbert suggested as little as “15 minutes” for “free choice paradox” to take effect with something as small as Monet prints; I wonder how long the “bake time” is for hobbies?) only to one day realize that he’s actually kind of hated it (or in the very least, never loved it) all along?

Because clearly, this happens. With bigger things than fencing.

If this were true, then shouldn’t we be happy with everything we “choose” or perceive as unchangeable?

If Gilbert’s research held true, then shouldn’t aging be accepted? Breakups, divorces, deaths? Shouldn’t marriage make us happy — whether we perceive divorce as an “option” or not.

Shouldn’t putting the blinders on, and really choosing our partner, make us love them more? Shouldn’t declarations of commitment make us report back, in earnest (Gilbert swears), “yes, this was my favorite one all along?”

If that were true, wouldn’t quitting his job and becoming a full-time fencing coach resolve my friend’s wishy-washy stance?

Of course not.

The solution…

a.) Choose something you don’t hate

In the example Gilbert gave, research participants were given their third favorite Monet print (which later become their #1 favorite after receiving it), but they weren’t stuck with their least favorite. (Though I’d be curious to see how those results would have panned out.)

b.) Get better at identifying what feels good — both long and short term

If this feels unreasonable, you’re out of touch with yourself. I (and many others) recommend meditation. But when in doubt, go with your gut.

c.) Understand the requirements of happiness

And decide if you want it.

Part of the reason participants were happy with things being locked down is because they accepted that they were locked down. Happiness requires a reasonable viewpoint of reality.

d.) Change our language

Do I think my buddy is happy with fencing? Here’s my real answer: I don’t think it matters.

I think it’s fencing — i.e., a hobby — and hell, if he thinks he’s curious about fencing, then go for it, bud. Whether this becomes a new life passion or is just something he’s moderately interested in doesn’t make a huge difference. People do stuff like this all the time — to fill time, make friends, get over break ups, whatever — and I’m not sure there’s any real harm in not having a much better answer than “eh, I guess?”

Now, that’s for fencing — if my homeboy wants to spend a few hours of his week cutting and thrusting and that keeps him busy, so be it — but for bigger things in life, of course, we should be a bit more deliberate.

e.) Change our expectations

But we should also understand: there’s a difference between momentary bliss and overall happiness, and sometimes “happiness doesn’t happiness.” Sometimes the good stuff comes wrapped up in moments that make you tell a friend over drinks “I dunno, but I sure keep going back!” There’s a difference between doing that from a place of unhappiness, and checking out, and doing that because sometimes life isn’t all highs.

f.) Repeat

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Kris Gage

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Kris Gage

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The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +469K people. Follow to join our community.