Who doesn’t want to be happier? We know we do.
Happiness might feel elusive to you. If you are overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed, you aren’t alone.
You might think that happiness is a goal you can strive for and achieve in a lasting way. But the reality is that our evolution built our brains to use the same dopamine-powered reward circuits to serve diverse behaviors and learning.
We have to seek out new information about the world. We seek novelty, we are naturally curious, and we favor exploration. We are restless by nature.
Satisfaction can’t be stored because of the very nature by which it is generated.
It turns out that many of our intuitions about happiness are wrong. But by making better decisions—some that run against your intuitions—you can become a happier person.
So we’ve assembled our favorite nudges from our book Make Better Decisions and put them together with scientific insights about happiness so you can nudge yourself towards making a happier life.
Happiness Insight #1: Your Intuitions Are Wrong
Happiness Insight #2: Time Famine vs Time Affluence
Happiness Insight #3: Happiness is Made
Happiness Insight #3: Joy of Flow
Practice these nudges and we promise you’ll make better happiness decisions.
We have strong intuitions about what will make us happier. A new car, a new job, getting married, or having a child. But only about 10% of changes in happiness are explained by changes in circumstance. 50% is explained by genetic factors which you can’t control. The remainder—a full 40%—is determined by your thoughts, actions, and attitudes.
If your basic needs are met, the biggest change to your happiness is to change your behavior.
Who are the happiest people? Happy people spend quality time with friends and family. They practice gratitude. They try to be optimistic, the lucky ones are naturally that way. They are physically active. Happy people spend more time living in the present and savor life’s good moments.
If many of our decisions about what will make us happy are made intuitively and they are wrong, what can we do to make better decisions?
The most powerful nudge of all is to delay intuition.
Nudge: Delay Intuition
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman details how humans make judgments about the world. Human thinking follows two modes: 1. fast—intuitively and emotionally, and 2. slow—deliberately and more logically.
The first, commonly called system 1, is easy, fast, and efficient. System 2 is harder work. When we make intuitive judgments via system 1, we are prone to particular errors in predictable ways.
For example, loss aversion is a bias toward avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. Individuals prefer not to lose fifty dollars over finding fifty dollars. These are called cognitive biases and we have many. We can’t avoid these biases. Even Kahneman says he is subject to all of them! But we can be more aware of these biases and when they may be operating.
For example, a strong intuition we have when we feel unhappy is to do something for ourselves. But doing something for someone else instead of yourself will make you happier.
Say you are having a bad day at work so, to cheer yourself up, you treat yourself to a pedicure. If you buy your co-worker a voucher for a pedicure instead, science says it will have a greater impact on your happiness.
When you feel a yearning for that new something that you think will make you happy, slow down and consider what you could do for someone else instead.
When you feel down and you just want to retreat to the couch and watch Netflix, go against your intuition to be alone. Reach out to a friend, cold call a relative you haven’t seen in a while, or go to Starbucks and chat to the barista.
Nudge: Explore vs. Exploit
In all decisions, we have the choice of exploring (gathering new information) or exploiting (using the information we already have) to make that decision.
A classic example of the explore/exploit dilemma is choosing a meal at your favorite restaurant. You know you love the pizza, so choosing this will not yield any new information but you will be guaranteed a good meal. Or you can choose the special. You’ll gain new information about the world but risk having a meal that’s below your expectations.
New information has value but it costs time, resources, and opportunity. Is it worth it or should you just go with what you know? When the pace of change is high, the explore/exploit dilemma tells us that it makes sense to explore.
Many of us have strong intuitions about whether to explore or exploit. When we are younger, we tend to be biased towards exploration because we have many years left to live in which to use new knowledge gained. This is nature’s solution to the dilemma—as children we constantly explore while our parents give us air cover on mistakes.
As we get older, we tend to make more exploit decisions. We simply don’t have as much time to live so we favor what we know over a new, but bad, experience.
These intuitions can be so strong that we neglect to consider the alternative. If we have a tendency to over-explore, gratitude can help us re-orient towards focusing on what we know.
If we have a tendency to over-exploit and not do anything new, spending time with people who expose us to new ideas and activities can help us be more curious.
When you feel unhappy and restless, consider what you are grateful for in your life.
When you feel unhappy and bored, be more curious. Explore something new, ask someone to tell you about their work or their personal passion.
If you suddenly found you had an extra $100, what would you do with it?
Now: What would you do if you suddenly found you had an extra hour?
Chances are you’d be inclined to use the extra money on a treat and to buy something you did not budget for otherwise, rather than paying off an existing debt. The opposite happens with time. There’s a good chance you’d use that day to catch up on work, rather than go for a walk or visit a museum, something you’d otherwise not have time to do.
We are not good at valuing time and money correctly. Part of the reason is that we don’t understand what kind of commodities they are. Money is elastic—we can accumulate it over our lifetimes. Time is intrinsically inelastic. You can’t accumulate more of it and every day contains the same amount.
We should feel that an hour is more valuable than a dollar but we consistently behave as if the opposite were true. Accepting a new job with a 20% higher salary but it meant 25% more hours, for instance.
Here’s the thing: time affluence makes us feel a lot happier than being famished for time, as long as we use it to do something unexpected. This is, in many ways, the opposite of our cultural value of time. In America, we reward busyness. Having a lot of money is a status symbol while having a lot of time is almost shameful.
How do you calibrate how you value your time? This isn’t an easy decision because we often have to sacrifice in the present to have something we want in the future, which can flip the time versus money equation around.
Here’s two nudges to help you be more flexible when trying to balance time and money.
Nudge: Consider the Frame
Choices can be presented in a way that highlights the positive or negative aspects of the same decision. This presentation leads to changes in the decision’s relative attractiveness. It might seem crazy that we can assess the exact same decision differently depending on how it’s presented but it’s certainly real and common.
Everything from people preferring the descriptor “95% fat free” versus “only 5% fat,” to students being less likely to choose a major in a subject that’s after back-to-back classes.
In the example above of someone who takes a higher paying job but loses proportionately more time, framing could help them calibrate the equation differently. Even rephrasing sentences can change how information is perceived.
For example, if the new job equation was framed as “you will have to increase your hours by 25% but your salary will increase by 20%”. Framing the choice this way is immediately less attractive even though the choice is identical.
Whenever you make a decision, try reframing the information. Flip percentages around or tweak the wording of sentences so that the information is structured differently.
Nudge: Seeds of Regret
We can’t make perfect decisions all the time. Not all errors of decision- making are created equal. For example, we tend to feel losses more than equivalent gains. We regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did. We regret not being bold. We regret making bad choices when the consequences accrue. We regret not being the person we could have been.
What are you prepared to live with if things go wrong? What will you regret if you allow poor habits to morph into long-term failures?
This is important for many life decisions. We tend to pay more attention to rewards in the present than those we may have in the future—a psychological process called temporal discounting.
Some regrets are painful straight away, like a hangover after a big night. But other regrets sneak up on us. Poor savings decisions. Bad eating habits. Slacking off in school. Spending too much time distracted. These foundational regrets are some of the biggest regrets and are also the hardest to undo.
Anticipating regret and evaluating error is easier to do when you can bring the future into the present. Run different scenarios and simulate what happens. Listen for the words “too much” when attached to something that offers immediate gratification or “too little” when they are attached to something that requires steady commitment.
Try to imagine how it will feel to undo years of bad decisions. What would your future self say to you now? What do you need to change? Don’t wait—start making different decisions today.
When you think about trading off time for money, consider what you’d regret not using that time for.
When you want to be happier, consider the passage of time. What rewards do you want in the future that you are prepared to work for now? Time versus money can trade off over the years but while money can be saved up and used later, time can’t be.
When you make decisions and forecast how you will feel about the outcomes at some future time, it’s highly unlikely that you will be correct. Forecasting emotions is very hard and we suffer from predictable biases in how we think we will feel.
Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, is famous for his work on “prospection” which is the term he uses for how we think about the future. We are biased to think that adverse events will be worse than they actually are and to think that advantageous events will be better than they end up being. We have a “psychological immune system.” It prevents our happiness level from being spiked by external circumstances, whether they are good or bad.
It turns out that humans are more adaptable than we think we are. We adjust and find new ways to be happy.
Gilbert’s view is that happiness isn’t something we chase or achieve but rather something we manufacture. In other words, you don’t find happiness. You make it.
Nudge: Forecasting Emotions
When we have to make a decision that takes into account how we will feel in the future, we have to forecast emotions in context. It’s very hard to predict emotions in a future we haven’t lived yet. Affective forecasting is complex and riddled with errors. We should be careful about anticipating the emotional consequences of our decisions.
Immediate emotions (those you feel when you are thinking through a decision or making the decision) depend on a variety of factors that have little or no influence on expected emotions. This means that immediate emotions associated with thinking about the consequences of a decision will differ in intensity and quality from the emotion experienced when the consequence occurs.
For example, when different groups were asked whether they would accept a grueling course of chemotherapy that would extend their lives by three months, no radiotherapists said they would, only 6% of oncologists and 10% of healthy people said they would. But 42% of cancer patients said they would. Immediate emotions are responsive to a wide range of factors, including vividness and proximity of consequences. Many biases come from mismatches between evolutionary adaptiveness and current decision environments.
It’s no fun to live with a decision if how you feel when you make the decision doesn’t line up with the experience of the consequences. For example, say you are planning a trip where you can either fly for an hour or drive for five hours. You have a fear of flying but know it’s an irrational fear so you decide that you are going to be rational. You undertake a dispassionate appraisal of the dangers and benefits of each option and conclude that flying is the better option because driving is objectively more dangerous. But as departure day draws nearer, you start to fear the flight far more than you would fear the drive, even though you know it’s an irrational response.
Accurately predicting how a decision is ultimately going to feel is difficult. The good news is that humans suffer from some predictable errors. We underestimate our ability to adapt to change, which means we can correct for this error by assuming we will adapt to a future in a different way than we expected.
When you wonder whether a decision will make you happy, recognize that you will overestimate the emotional impact of the decision. You will tend to think bad things will be worse than they will turn out to be and that good things will be better.
Nudge: Rewild Your Attention
How much time do you spend online, your attention guided by big tech’s algorithms? We would bet that it’s quite a lot. When our attention is narrow, captured, hijacked, we can’t focus on what we really want. And because our lives are the sum total of what we pay attention to, distraction is a deep cause of unhappiness. We literally don’t know ourselves.
Clive Thompson uses an ecological metaphor to describe the impact of algorithmic feeds on our attention. Thompson describes our natural attention as wild while our AI-managed attention is like a monoculture. He writes how big tech recommendation systems have a remarkably dull conception of what interests us. “You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.”
To be truly curious, we want minds that are not monocropped by algorithms. As Thompson writes, “You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of racoons has taken up residence.”
Clive’s recommendations for rewilding our minds are rich and idiosyncratic. He has built up a “big, rangy collection of RSS feeds,” that let him check up on hundreds of eclectic blogs, publications, and people. He picks a subject almost at random, then checks to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. He’ll trawl through to find out what the community cares about, engaging in what he calls, a “psychogeographic walk of the mind.”
What does this have to do with making better decisions? Quite a lot. Machines—specifically the algorithms behind social media and recommendation systems such as those on Netflix or Spotify—know our preferences and concentrate our attention on more of the same.
Sometimes there is a diversion or a peripatetic step that takes us out of our comfort zone. But not often, and often not well. Human curation is grounded in taste and judgment. It plays to our changing interests, increases our natural capability for curiosity, and helps us broaden our perspective.
The most important decision we make is what we choose to pay attention to. People who are happier know how to focus their attention. They are skilled at being present with others. They know how to savor moments as they arise. They are more curious. Practice mindfulness. Allow your curiosity to be wilder.