To Ring in the New Year, Why Not Change How You Think About Happiness?

I have a saying I keep on prominent display in my office. It reads: “Happiness is something you decide ahead of time.” I also keep those Seeds of Happiness lying around. Both help train my brain to be happy.

I admit it’s not the most romantic route to happiness. It might even sound like I’m forcing myself to be happy. Then again, maybe I’m just being smart.

Harvard scientist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, writes that when it comes to happiness, most people have the “wrong map.” Natural happiness, he says, is what happens when people get what they want. That ‘A’ in school, for instance. Or that car, or that award, or that house.

But studies show that getting what we want doesn’t actually make us happy—that’s why the joy associated with these events is short-lived. It’s the reason we need a new happiness fix to help move the feeling along. After about three months, that thing we imagined would make us happy, whatever it was, has virtually no impact on our happiness at all. It was a tease.

Take buying a new car. You know how at first it feels really great? It’s so clean and full of new possibilities. But give it a year, and the car starts to lose its vitality. You get used to it. You wake up one day and realize it’s just a car, a mode of transportation. It no longer feels the way it did when you bought it. That’s because the purchase of the car didn’t make you happy. Euphoric, perhaps. But not happy.

So what will you do when the euphoria has waned? You could trade the car in for a new model in order to get the euphoria back. But remember: the joy won’t last. That’s because

the key to happiness lies in your ability to create it. Gilbert calls this “synthetic happiness.” Synthetic happiness isn’t a result of natural origin or happenstance. It’s produced.

Did you know we’re also capable of controlling our thoughts? It’s true we can’t help what enters our brains—we can’t control our feelings, in other words—but we can change the way we react to those feelings. We feel with our hearts, but we think with our brains. So use your brain to overrule your heart.

Make yourself happy.

For women in particular, it’s their definition of and their expectations for happiness that ironically keep them from being happy. The best shot any one of us has of being happy—in any domain, even in marriage—is to have no expectations. Not high, low or medium expectations. None. Rather, go with what you get, or with what you’ve already chosen, and create a happy life from that.

“The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped,” writes Gilbert.

That may sound counterintuitive, but it follows the same logic as that put forth by psychologist Barry Schwartz. In The Paradox of Choice, he writes, “When a decision is final, we engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance our feelings about the choice we made relative to the alternatives.”

It also reflects something Martha Washington once said: “The greater part of our misery or circumstances depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.” And finally, what Abraham Lincoln noted: “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

So with the new year upon us, try a different route to happiness. And let me know what happens!

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, a coach, and a podcast host committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.