David Strittmatter

Why you are less happy than you could be

It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness. – Charles Spurgeon


  • We systematically miswant things; achieving goals won’t make us happy
  • Our own reference points constantly adapt to our current situation, thus, we never get satisfied
  • We constantly compare ourselves to others, heavily harming our happiness

Practical advice:

  • Genuinely appreciate your current and past successes
  • Focus on goals that will force you to pursue a path that will make you a happier person
  • Compare yourself only to the best self you can be

Dear friend,

This week, I was once again reminded that life and happiness are all about the little things:

Currently, I work for a startup company and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, my colleagues and I can go to the office every day. On Wednesday, though, our management and subsequently the whole company were informed that one of our colleagues was in contact with a person who was tested positively for the coronavirus.

With immediate effect, we all had to leave the office (in compliance with hygiene rules) and self-isolate until we found out whether our colleague was infected as well.

Luckily, the person didn’t test positive; however, we first knew the result two days later on Friday.

During these two days of uncertainty, I had to quit my trip to my family, couldn’t go to the gym, couldn’t buy groceries in spite of an almost empty fridge, etc.

As you can imagine, I was unbelievably happy after I had received the relieving message.

This little anecdote illustrates that we – or at least I – take too many things for granted and don’t really know what makes us truly happy.

Since I’m doing the Science of Well-Being class of the Yale University, which is all about the science of happiness, and this incident helped me to apply the concepts of the course, I want to share with you very interesting insights of the class, talk about misconceptions regarding happiness, and why we have this wrong understanding.

Things that don’t make us happy

What really surprised me in this Yale class was that goals don’t make us happy. Using empirical studies, professor Laurie Santos illustrates various misconceptions about happiness: Getting good grades, achieving a high salary, buying a large house, having a cosmetical surgery or going on diet to achieve the perfect body, driving an expensive car, getting married, etc. – all these things seem to make us very happy, but in fact, research shows that the real gain in happiness when we achieve these awesome things is marginal, non-existent, or even negative.

But why do we think that these things will make us happy?

The answer to this question is miswanting, the act of being mistaken about what and how much you’re going to like certain things in the future.

And why do we miswant?

We are constantly judging relative to other stuff out there in the world, and it messes up our judgment of what we really care about.

Our own reference point

We compare things in the future with those of the past or the present. For instance, science shows that if you make 30k a year right now, you would think that 50k a year would make you truly happier. However, if you then would be asked, how much money you would need to be happier, you’d say even more money. Since our own reference points constantly adapt to our current situation, we kind of never get satisfied. And this is applicable to all kinds of awesome stuff: Bigger house, more aesthetic body, more fortune, better grades, etc.

Social comparisons

Second, even worse: social comparisons, the act of evaluating yourself – be it whatever it is (salary, possessions, abilities, beauty, and grades, whatever) – relative to other people. Research shows that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. Unsurprisingly, people who tend to watch more TV and more YouTube videos or are more frequently using Instagram and other social media platforms (beautiful and rich celebrities, fashion shows, expensive cars, etc.) are significantly unhappier than others who limit their consumption. Another study showed that the majority of people would rather earn $50k, but everyone else in their firm at their same level is only earning $25K than earning $100k, but everyone else around them in their similar pay grade is actually earning $250k.

Getting used to things

Third, we don’t realize how fast we get used to awesome stuff. Our minds are built to adapt, and this is the reason why getting something awesome or getting more of it won’t make you really happy.

The problem with all awesome things is that once we get them, usually they tend to stick around, or if we get a new job, we’re going to be in that job for a while. No matter whether you buy awesome stuff, a new car, a house; you meet the person of your dreams; you achieve perfect grades – these things stick around, you get used to them, and they become the new normal. They stop bringing you the happiness that you expect and reset your reference point for the future. The main reason why lottery winners don’t become happier people.

What you can do to become happier

In my next article about happiness, I’ll dive deeper into this topic and give you more detailed answers to the question of how you can become a happier person. Yet, in this blog post, I want to portray you ways how you can reduce the likelihood of miswanting and how you can set goals that make you a happier person.

Practice appreciation

You can become significantly happier by genuinely appreciate your current and past successes. Think about your achievements in the past few months and praise yourself for how far you’ve come, what challenges and obstacles you needed to overcome, and how much discipline and effort you invested.

I tell myself to be never satisfied, to strive for more and better results. Yet, I’m a very happy person. And why? Because I’m grateful for every little opportunity life has offered me. I appreciate every second of life. Every night, before I go to sleep, I ask myself What were my biggest successes today? and What I’m looking forward to tomorrow?. These little exercises help me to practice appreciation daily and make me a much happier person.

It’s much more about the challenge than the goal

Since now you know that goals and awesome stuff won’t make you a happy person, you may think goals are generally a bad idea and throw all your goals overboard. That’d be too short-sighted though.

What I’d suggest you to do is to focus on goals that will force you to pursue a path that will make you a happier person. For instance, having the perfect body won’t make you a happier person; however, eating healthier, doing regular workouts, and exercising something will definitely make you a happier person. Another example: Working 100 hours a week in investment banking to get hundreds of thousands of bucks a year although you don’t love the job won’t make you a happy person (actually you will kill your immune system, social circle, and you might abuse drugs). Yet, working hard for something that gives you purpose and ultimately achieving it, such as building a school in Uganda, will definitely make you a happier person. Not because you achieved something but because you created something for people you care about.

Stop comparing

Lastly, what’s most important or the most significant lever to become a happier person: stop comparing yourself to others.

Particularly, our generation (Gen Y) and the following generations will be significantly (statistically spoken) unhappier because of the Media. Social media – Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, etc. – have an unbelievable potential and can create enormous wealth (enabling communication and broadcasting across the globe, initiating and developing great communities, and creating meaningful content much more easily to name a few achievements). Yet, all these great influencers showing off their seemingly perfect lives poison our happiness. All these social media platforms encourage users to constantly compare themselves with each other and the people apparently most successful in showing off and presenting their perfect life gain the most attention (likes, engagement, reach).

An overwhelming multitude of studies shows that comparisons with others make us unhappy. In my opinion, this issue is not only empirically evident but logically plausible. It just cannot be sensible to compare yourself to others. We all have a different starting point. It would not only be unfair to compare yourself to others but dumb. Nevertheless, most people don’t spend time and effort in order to change their minds and concentrate on their very own.

From now on, you should compare yourself only to the best self you can be. Think about the person you would love to be and ask yourself how it’d be to achieve this state of life (and keep our tendency to miswant things in mind!).

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