"It's never as good as it looks and it's never as bad as it seems."
Sitting in my cubicle, I'm rehearsing my spiel. I have to talk about all the things I've done this year. I hate bragging. My palms are sweaty and my heart is racing. I have my annual review in five minutes. I hoping for something close to the raise I got last year. They gave me a 20% raise last year. That's huge; at least in my experience, it is.
It's now time. I walk in sit down and my boss and I get to talking. 30 minutes later he tells me that I am getting raise this year. My heart rate goes up a little in anticipation. I'm having a conversation in my head with myself, "Is it going to be like last year? It can't be, right? 20% is a lot." He gives me the details and I get close to a 30% raise this year! I'm happier than a puppy dog with two tails!
I wish that level of happiness would have lasted forever. I'm elated for the rest of the day, and even over the weekend. By a month later, though, it's just normal. I'm back to my same old routines.
Elevated happiness doesn't last.
Waiting for the elevator so we can go to lunch, I tell my work colleagues about my plans for the evening. They include going to the gym to work out before going to the library to study for an exam I'm registered for. They seem to think that my gym is below them. They work out at a more expensive gym and start talking about how nice the facilities are. I don't know about those experiences. I go to a discount gym. It has everything that I need and is open when I need it to be. It's close enough to where I live that the commute is good. Yet I feel envious of the fancier gym.
Later on, at lunch, the conversation turns to a story about one colleague's experience with the train, taking him to his apartment just outside of downtown. Another colleague lives in a cool condo on the other side of downtown, walkable to work. That sounds so cool. I'm jealous of their living situations. I live in an apartment that I used to think was cool, but I don't anymore. I was so happy after getting my raise and moving, but now a large part of me wants the experience of living downtown.
The grass always seems greener, even if you already have green grass.
I'm nervous to ask, but I want to have lunch with my boss. It's a year later and I had my review last week. In my first review, I got a 20% raise and last year I got close to a 30% raise. This year I got just over a 10% raise. It's a good raise, but the drastic reduction feels like a slap in the face. I'm far more productive than I have been. I'm saving them time and money. Because of me and my good friend and colleague, they don't have to hire two employees - we've automated two roles. They reward me with half the raise (in dollars) I got last year. I'm not happy.
It gets worse for me. Recently they brought in a trader (a person to buys and sells investments for the company) to help them with their trading processes. Recently, though, it's looking like they are grooming him to be the head of the entire department, both his department and the department in which I work. This is unsettling because I (along with most of my colleagues) thought that I would soon be the head of my department.
At lunch, I tell my boss that I was unhappy with some new guy being groomed for the job that made sense for me to have. He assured me that they had no plans of doing that.
Days later they gave the official announcement that I was right. It's almost like I gave him the idea. I'm furious. I'm sad. I'm frustrated. This is the worst.
A couple of months later I'm used to it. I'm used to the new routines. I'm able to get over my despair. This "emergency" was a lesson. That lesson led to many other experiences that I wouldn't have had if I ran that department.
Emergencies don't last.
Becoming Is Different From Being
Our minds are fascinating. When we think about the future, we have the ability to make very quick simulations about how the future might look. When we face a decision, there are many ways the world can play out. If we choose A, that could be the correct choice or not, it could have unintended consequences, or it could open up new doors for us. It's the same thing when we consider option B. Pretty soon the number of potential futures goes way up. Our brains quickly simulate all those potential futures for us, which helps us make better choices.
We are creatures of habit, though, and we get used to our environments. We get uncomfortable deviating from the status quo. That's important when we consider how we evaluate the future.
It's when we think about changing from the status quo that we run through our simulations of the future. We know that status quo; we like the status quo, but we have to make some guesses about the change we need to make.
We make our guesses about the future through our brains quick simulations. But in exchange for that quick simulation, our brains skip over details, and those details matter.
Think about two situations that represent what most people would consider an amazing event and a devastating event - winning the lottery and losing the use of our legs. We are really good at focusing on the change in the status quo. We believe that winning the lottery will make us incredibly happy. We think losing our ability to walk and run will make us miserable.
That is, we focus on the change; we focus on becoming rich or becoming disabled.
We underestimate how good we are at getting used to things, or adapting. While our simulations are good at imaging the change we will face, they skip over details. We struggle to imagine being something new. We don't imagine being rich or being disabled. The details we miss include our day-to-day activities. We get new routines. Being wealthy becomes the new norm. New financial challenges replace our existing challenges. We get a new status quo. The same is true of becoming disabled. We develop new routines, new hobbies, and develop a new status quo.
We tend to think of our happiness as something that can change over time. While we can vary from day-to-day, we all have a baseline level of happiness that becomes the anchor.
(It's interesting to note that we can work to change our baseline level, but it's not the things that you might think - like winning the lottery or becoming disabled.)
We Are Bad at Predicting
When we think about winning the lottery, we think our level of happiness will rise for good. How could it not? Our problems were mostly caused by money and now we have all the money. What other problems could there possibly be?
Our new life as a lottery winner becomes the new normal and we develop a new way of life. We get used to having money and our happiness level falls back toward our baseline. Good events are never as intense as we predict, nor are they as long.
Because we didn't recognize our ability to adapt to our new surroundings and our happiness falls back to our normal range, we feel empty. It should have made us happy, we think. It didn't. So now we set our sights on something else. We look toward greener pastures.
This applies to more than just positive events. We get confused about how bad things will be, too. We predict our lives will be miserable if we lose our legs. You probably guessed by now that after some time of despair, we develop new habits and routines, and we get used to it. We adapt to bad things, too.
Emergencies Don't Last
Think about all the "emergencies" you faced last year. Heck, how about the "emergencies" from last week. How do they feel today? Do you even remember them? My guess is that they did not have the impact on your life that you thought they would at the time.
Just to be clear, when I talk about emergencies I'm not simply talking about big life-altering events like I talked about earlier. I'm talking about life's little day-to-day emergencies that spring up and cause us stress. Realizing you're out of butter before the dinner guests arrive, for example. Or dropping a wine glass on the floor. We can have a tendency to jump to worst-case scenarios.
Just like with life-altering events, short term emergencies make our minds ignore our baseline happiness and we think the worst. We expect to be in a state of continual stress.
A good antidote to this kind of chaos is to keep an Emergency Journal. Write down, honestly, every time you thought there was an emergency that was going to ruin your day, your week, or your life. Write down what happened, and what you thought was going to happen in response.
Review your journal regularly and you'll discover that it's never as bad as you thought it was going to be. You'll eventually be able to focus on the problem at hand and look for solutions and ignore the panic. You'll be more effective, more efficient, less stressed, and those around you will be less stressed.
I wrote a lot of words to describe the following statement: It's never as good or as bad as you think.
I think it deserves some attention, though. Recognizing that emergencies don't last, that things are never as bad as they seem, or that we are bad at predicting how happy things will make us, frees you up to focus on what matters. Live for today. Use your money to support your important values. Focus on what you can do today to make tomorrow just a little bit better.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
The Happiness Lab: The Unhappy Millionaire
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
Seth's Blog: One by one, the urgent goes away
Seth's Blog: A year from now...
Jason Zweig: Your Money and Your Brain
Wikipedia: Hedonic treadmill
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