This really got me thinking: would I actually be a better person if I lived in the woods? Would I really spend more time with my family and working on creative and fulfilling tasks? Would I actually garden more if I didn’t feel like I had to work all day and night? Or would I find other ways to fill my time that felt just as unproductive and unhealthy as random interneting? Would I find myself bored without the intellectual stimulation of a job?
Paul’s experience reminded me of the research on affective forecasting. Just as the name suggests, affective forecasting refers to our ability to forecast how we will feel in the future, or how other people will feel. And it turns out that we are not that good at it. We focus on the wrong features of the situation, considering only the good, essential aspects and ignoring those other little realities – such as how inconvenient it might be to have to drive a long distance out of the woods in order to reach civilization. Or how annoying the bugs in the woods might be (I hate bugs).
I also forget that although I will be in a cabin in the woods, living a life with no internet, I will still be me. So those habits that I have now, good or bad, will come with me wherever I go. If I move to a cabin in the woods, my desire to distract myself in the morning with some form of easy entertainment instead of getting out of bed and starting my day is not likely to disappear – I will likely just end up trading a book for my smart phone. This suggests that while there may be objective features of living a simple life that agree with me, it is not likely to be the picture-perfect vision I’ve made it to be in my head.
Other research suggests that we have a tendency towards homeostasis. That is, although we may experience fluctuations in our feelings of happiness and contentment, we generally tend to fall back to our baseline status quo. So while a new experience might bring you a lot of pleasure in the moment, you will likely find yourself returning to your usual levels of happiness when the novelty wears off. Because of the drive towards homeostasis, it is the tendency of humans to habituate to the good (and bad) things in our lives (which is why a near miss feels so good). As Paul found out during his internet-free year, the excitement and pleasure at being offline wore off within a few months. I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences with the fall from extraordinary to ordinary (perhaps with a new job, house, or relationship?). These findings suggest that I might benefit from spending a summer living in the woods, but I may find myself feeling just as irksome about life after a year in the woods as I do in my comfy house in the middle of civilization.Finally, recent research shows that we experience more variability in happiness from day to day than we do from person to person. So maybe I’ll be more successful at increasing my happiness if I focus on making small changes to my daily life, rather than giving it all up for the “simple life.”
So what’s the bottom line? Would I be happier if I got away from the pace, demands, and technology associated with modern day life? I honestly am not so sure. But all of this research does make me think that perhaps as long as my basic needs are met, how I feel inside is going to be a bigger determinant of my happiness than any external factor such as the view from my window.
What do you think the secret to happiness is?
Using psychological tools to help create a happy and meaningful life Published on May 10, 2013 by Amie M. Gordon, PhD in Between You and Me