Tuesday, January 16, 2020

Knowing What is (Really) Good for You

The connection between how we feel about life today and how well life is working for us is complex. Many feelings are transient. What we assume to be good and desirable may turn out not to be so in time. Our lives have many facets and events can be positive from one perspective, yet negative from another.
Most of us like to believe that we make positive life choices: that we take aim at some desired goal and do whatever we can to reach it, making decisions about what we want and what, we believe, will make us happy.

I wonder is this is true?

I seems to me that a great many choices, especially in the world of work, are more about what we want to avoid. We don’t so much set out to achieve happiness or satisfaction as to avoid feeling bad or frustrated. The trouble is that our beliefs and forecasts about what will make us happy—or help us avoid being unhappy—tend to be seriously wide of the mark.

Why should that be? Surely each of us ought to be the greatest expert on our own needs and sources of happiness?

Maybe not. There are quite a few reasons why people tend to make serious errors in choosing what will work best for them.
  1. Short-termism. It’s easy to be carried away by something and ignore the question of whether that enthusiasm will last. You buy the latest gizmo and the world seems a marvelous place. A few weeks later, it’s lying untouched and unregarded. Businesses do this too, chasing after the latest fad to build business, only to drop it in a few weeks or months. I wonder how much time and money is wasted this way?

  2. Instant gratification. Few of us like to wait to get what we want. Sometimes, however, that waiting time is useful in letting us have second thoughts. It’s no coincidence that marketers and advertisers urge you to buy instantly. The longer you must wait, the more likely you are to realize you don’t really want the item. Delay generally sharpens true needs and wishes, and blunts those that are not much more than whims.

  3. Exaggeration. It’s a human tendency to dramatize whatever concerns us. We focus on the differences between options (which may be minor) and ignore the greater similarities. Job A, we believe, will give us our dreams, so we ignore its drawbacks. Job B seems dull in comparison, so we ignore its benefits. In reality, we may be equally happy and successful in either one. So if Jobs A and B have similar potential for happiness, we’ll probably find in time that Job A’s pluses don’t really compensate us for the drawbacks we saw at the start.

  4. Aversion to loss. Once we have something, we are loathe to give it up, even if that might be the better option. The high-paying job is ruining our health, but we persist in hoping that we can somehow avoid the pain and keep the cash. The actual amount of loss may be virtually negligable in the wider context, but it seems huge because that is all we focus on.

  5. Myths about probabilities. Gamblers sometimes persist in a losing streak in the incorrect belief that, next time, they must win by “the law of averages.” It’s nonsense. Each wager has the same odds of winning or losing as the last, regardless of whether you previously won 10 times or lost 10 times in a row. Things only “average out” over thousands or millions of examples—by which time all your cash has gone.

  6. Foolish pride. Many, many people cling to bad decisions because they can’t bear to lose face by backing down. You are not your decision. Being wrong does not make you a bad person. Sticking to a wrong choice is going to hurt far more in the end.
One of the prevailing assumptions of modern life is that people know what’s good for them. There’s not much evidence that this is true. It’s usually justified by pointing to a supposed alternative: that the state or some tyrant takes over and runs our lives. That’s not an acceptable prospect. Why should he or she or they know better? If you think a little, you’ll quickly see that this isn’t an either/or situation. The only alternative to poorly-used freedom to choose isn’t tyranny. There are many alternatives—and one of those is to learn how to choose better.

Instead of rushing into decisions, or following the herd, or handing your choices over to someone else to make for you, what about learning how to use your freedom to better effect? Maybe slow down, think carefully, let any immediate emotions subside. Leave space for second and third thoughts. Food that tastes best isn’t always best for you. Immediate, intense desires aren’t somehow less prone to error than slower, less powerful ones.

Don’t let yourself fall into simplistic attitudes where judgement is narrowed to black versus white opinions, and the calculation of what is really in your best interests is reduced to advertising-like slogans. Take your time to consider all the options, long and short term. Hold back from premature commitment, if you can. Superficiality and haste are associated with weakness, not strength. Regret is no substitute for prior thought. In the end, nothing is certain, but you can still aim to make the best choice that you could at the time.

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John Wesley said...

I agree, things are always much more complicated than they might seem. That is why when really try to understand a situation deciding what to do is so much harder.

12:26 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, John.

Sadly, life is more complex that most people want it to be. On the other hand, when you truly understand the issues, many decisions turn out to be far simpler than we fear.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:49 PM  
Peter Vajda said...

Hi Carmen,

As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

For me, what your words point to is how seldom folks step back, from 25 miles out, to "consciously" reflect on their lives...to get a grasp of the big picture of "who I am", "how I am" and "why I am" on the planet.

There's a dangerous mixture of speed and greed...of ego and living life at 90 miles an hour...with no time out to reflect on what's really, really, important and meaningful.

What you offer as "reasons" folks make serious errors in their choices, I liken to "excuses"; "reason" is not part of the equation...which is often the case when blind ego is running the show.

The ego needs for control, recognition and security foster the immediate gratification, "I need it now!", mantra that drives so many folks' do-ings and be-ings.

When one does not take time for self-reflection and, rather, lives from a view that that my short-term, life plan is tonight and my long-term life plan is next Friday, well, it's understandable that so many folks do not and cannot experience true and real happiness as a result of their short-sightedness and living life from a place of ego-drive reactivity. The result, wanting even more, even faster.

3:02 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful comment, Peter.

3:12 PM  
Heather said...


Have you read How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich? It's a very readable, well-supported examination of typical fallacies of human reasoning. I've found the data in it very helpful for gently deflating snap-judgement certainty in myself, and sometimes in bosses and coworkers.

I think Peter Vajda is right about the dangerous mix of speed and ego, and too often that turns into the assumption that a decision is right as long as it hasn't been proved wrong. Combine that with emotional biases, human reasoning weaknesses, and the average person's poor ability to explain and articulate logical objections on the spot; it's not long before you're a befuddled participant in things that don't quite seem right but are moving forward because no one can quite identify why they're wrong. And far too often, they are wrong. Perhaps not disastrously wrong, but more dangerously, insidiously just-a-little-bit wrong. And that slightly-wrong project is compounded by the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and pretty soon the place looks like ground beef. It makes for a Hamburger Management world.

5:16 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a great comment, Heather.

I'm not familiar with the book that you mention, but I aim to get hold of a copy right away. It sounds like an excellent read.

The insidious, bit-by-bit impact of "off" decisions does indeed have a cumulative impact that causes greater chaos that the occasional horrific mistake. People rarely repeat a truly bad error, but they often persist with choices that are just not quite right — perhaps through stubbornness and the embarassment they fear from losing face.

Thanks again for a perceptive and helpful input.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:46 PM  

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