Einhorn’s 2×2

How to improve the way we think about happiness?

There are many theories out there. I’m currently reading about a counterintuitive one: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. It offers a much-needed counterbalance to the endless advice for positive thinking. Ironically, chasing frantically after happiness can make someone miserable.

My own research on experience took me to another related notion. Hillel Einhorn, the late psychologist from University of Chicago, argued that when we think about happiness we mainly consider three categories:

Things that

  • we want that we have (make us happy)
  • we don’t want that we have (make us unhappy)
  • we want that we don’t have (make us unhappy)

Yet we rarely take into account a fourth category: things that we don’t want that we don’t have (make us happy).

And he says, because this last category is huge, “we are actually a lot happier than we think we are.”

We recently wrote more on this on Psychology Today. And here’s Einhorn, explaining the idea:

Uncertainty preference

Which is better? To know about your future: where you will be in five years, with whom, doing what. Or not knowing it, welcoming change and unpredictability in the short-term.

I am confused.

The famous Dead Poets Society (1989 film) teaches us to seize the day. Carpe diem! The message is loud and clear throughout the movie. Or is it? All the characters in the film are miserable at the end. And the poets wind up dead.

Hence organizing things so that planning will not be necessary in the future ought to be the answer. Well… I am not so sure. That sounds both boring and depressing. It might not even be possible given the level of uncertainty.

A cocktail may be the tastier option; some dose of certainty with volatility on top of it. Of course the mix would change from person to person and also in time. That is the trouble.

The question then becomes; how much uncertainty would you like in your life, right now?