Turning Point: MAKING LIFE CHOICES [HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 12]
June 1, 2016“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 the 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 – We’re all prone to being influenced by external opinions and social pressures. Some of us may even trust the opinions of others more than our own. 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 or if, as mentioned above, 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 big and small choices that are inherently rewarding for us, add meaning to our life, and honor our own values and strengths. And, it has more to do with cultivating significant social connections, allowing ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the moment, understanding what truly matters to us, and being grateful for what we have. But, even when armed with this knowledge, in the midst of the daily grind, and with the pressures and stresses we all experience, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important to us. Consequently, we can find ourselves preoccupied with things that don’t contribute to our happiness, and in fact, may even pull us away from the things that really matter.
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 as we think about the choices we want to make going 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 to your descendants (or other people) summarizing your life, your values and your accomplishments up until this point.
- Of the things you’ve done, which are most meaningful to you?
- What memories bring you the most pleasure?
- As you think about what you want to put in the summary, what do you learn about your strengths, talents, interests, and values?
- Does thinking about these questions, and writing this letter, 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
LEARN MORE ABOUT AUDREY BERGER, PhD AND TURNING POINT LIFE COACHING: Audrey has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 35 years. In her life coaching practice, she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and living well in the face of life challenges such as chronic illness or creating a new life after divorce/loss or breast cancer treatment. She also works with an array of other issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. Since coaching can readily take place on the phone, you can coach with Audrey no matter where you are located. You can learn more about Audrey’s coaching services, and arrange for your complimentary coaching consultation with Audrey, by going to http://www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. She can also be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at (585) 292-0095.