Every day we have to make hundreds of decisions. Many of them are small. What do we have for breakfast? What clothes will we wear? What brand of milk do we buy? Other decisions are more significant and can change the course of our lives.
When we have to make meaningful decisions, we usually project ourselves into the future to try to see how they will affect us. And since we live in a “tyranny of happiness”, it is common for us to wonder if that decision will make us happy. However, making important decisions based on our projection of happiness can be a double-edged sword.
Our perception of happiness changes over time
The psychological research suggests that our conception of happiness and what makes us happy changes systematically throughout life. Our meaning of happiness is dynamic, perhaps much more than we are willing to acknowledge. What makes us happy today may not make us happy tomorrow, because our priorities and outlook on life change. So making decisions based solely on what we think might make us happy, can lead us down a path that is not really satisfying in the long run.
Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist at the Stanford School of Business, believes that decisions guided by the desire to be happy can generate a sense of joy and pleasure, but this is usually fleeting. For this reason, she proposes that we ask ourselves another question when making decisions: what is the most meaningful for us?
How to differentiate what makes us happy from what is meaningful?
You can lead a relatively happy life, without being particularly meaningful, in the same way that a meaningful life does not always guarantee happiness.
To understand the difference between what makes us happy and what is meaningful in our life, we can think of parenthood or motherhood. Fathers and mothers have meaningful lives, but that does not mean that they are always happy as parenting can be very challenging and is not without worry and conflict.
The choices we make when we aspire to happiness are often different from those we make when we aspire to something meaningful. In fact, sometimes making meaningful decisions is not easy because they involve a high cost or we have to give up certain things for a larger purpose.
A person who wants to develop a professional career, for example, will have to make certain sacrifices throughout his or her life to achieve the programmed goals. That will mean making decisions based on a set of values and aspirations that are meaningful, rather than considering only what will make him or her happy in the short to medium term.
In fact, the positive consequences of the decisions we make when guided by the desire to achieve something meaningful, as opposed to happiness, tend to last longer because they do not consist in giving the “self” what it wants at that moment, but in having a broader perspective in time and a deeper understanding of our identity that guides us to make decisions in tune with who we are and what we want to be.
How to make meaningful decisions?
1. Look to the future
Usually before embarking on a path, we try to scrutinize the future to analyze the impact of the different options and make the best decision. However, meaningful decisions can connect us to the future in a different way.
A study conducted at Harvard Business School revealed that people make decisions that at first glance may seem aversive, in order to use their time more productively and have unique new experiences that allow them to enrich their “experiential curriculum.” Therefore, when deciding we should not ask ourselves only what makes us happy, but also what is meaningful to us.
2. Look back
Meaningful decisions are not made only looking to the future but also looking to the past, remembering the special moments that gave meaning to our lives to find a common thread that provides meaning.
In fact, a study conducted at the Wharton School showed that we tend to avoid situations that can threaten a special memory, even if the situation is pleasant. For example, we may forgo a positive experience if it threatens to erase a memory that is meaningful to us. Therefore, when choosing, we must also make sure we look back.
3. Look at the little details
In a general sense, we can group experiences into two broad categories: the extraordinary, which go beyond the scope of everyday life, and the ordinary, which make up daily life and which we often overlook. Many times decisions focused on happiness leads to “extraordinary” experiences, but the truth is that life experiences can become more meaningful.
A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that while extraordinary experiences are valuable early in life, ordinary, life experiences become increasingly important as one ages and contributes to a sense of identity and well-being. Therefore, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be dazzled by the promise of extraordinary experiences and that we learn to value the satisfaction generated by everyday experiences.
Mogilner, C. & Bhattacharjee, A. (2014) Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research; 41(1): 1-17.
Aaker, J. et. Al. (2012) How Happiness Affects Choice. Journal of Consumer Research; 39(2): 429–443.
Keinan, A. & Kivetz, R. (2011) Productivity Orientation and the Consumption of Collectable Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research; 37(6): 935–950.
Zauberman, G. et. Al. (2009) Memories as Assets: Strategic Memory Protection in Choice over Time. Journal of Consumer Research; 35(5): 715-728.