Happiness. For Charlie Brown, it was finding a little redheaded girl’s chewed up pencil. For Linus, it’s chasing random pigeons and receiving spontaneous pink belly rubs. For me, and this is anything but new, happiness was achieved after being thrashed about. Keep pushing me down and telling me I can’t do something, and I’ll rise up with grace, a smile, and a fist. Thank you to my most malicious critics for making me feel like an underdog. The more arduous the plight, the more melodic my victorious battle cry. I’m taking singing lessons.
I’ve associated accomplishment with happiness before, noting a few exceptions. So many times we think we know what will make us happy; we predict it. The Chloé Leather Paddington Bag, the new Treo 650, getting married, having children, a grilled cheese sandwich. Of course they all don’t hold equal weight, but we imagine these things will delight us. Often, once we attain the very thing we wanted, we feel a tinge of disenchantment. It wasn’t as satisfying as we’d anticipated; the high didn’t last as long as we’d thought. Our favorite toy, the red wagon we begged our mother for, is now atop a discarded pile of abandoned loves. We all tend to get it completely wrong.
We do it with pain too. If you told me one day that the man who truly had my heart would look me in the eyes and lie, without any expressed remorse—ever, and betray me in a horrific and public way, I’d have played a melodramatic card and said, “I’ll never get over this. I’ll never love again.” At best, I’d have given myself a decade. I was wrong; I fell in love again after one year’s time.
We anticipate we’ll feel pain or pleasure more intensely than we do, and we’re certain it will last far longer than it does. Our bodies have defenses, and we, far too often, underestimate their power.
I read The Futile Pursuit of Happiness last night, where Gilbert, a professor in Harvard’s department of psychology, Tim Wilson of UVA, economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon, and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton question the decision-making process that shapes our sense of well-being: “how do we predict what will make us happy or unhappy—and then how do we feel after the actual experience?” They conclude that bad events prove less intense and more transient than we predict. Good events prove less intense and briefer as well. They name the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the “impact bias”—“impact” meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and “bias” our tendency to err. We overestimate the impact good or bad events will have on our lives. None of them make the difference you’d imagined they would.
It’s why when we actually meet someone we’ve waited for we’re unsure if it’s real. It doesn’t feel quite as we’d imagined it. The ice cream we’d been depriving ourselves of during a diet doesn’t taste as good as we’d imagined when we actually do sink the metal spoon into the tub of trouble.
However, sometimes happiness sneaks up on us, surprising us like balloons bobbing on our glass ceilings. We hadn’t predicted this, and now that it’s upon us, we’re ecstatic; it’s like found money. Intense emotion is felt when we’re blindsided by an event, when there weren’t visible indications of the sharp turn you were approaching. He breaks up with you out of nowhere (either you missed the signs completely or you ignored them—either way, the pain is magnified when you don’t have the chance to predict how you’d respond). Someone phones you to tell you your dreams just came true, out of nowhere. You never had the opportunity to even imagine the happiness, so you experience it deeply. There was no expectation.
You get the unexpected news that a loved one is terminally ill. You’re blindsided by the news, but now there’s time to expect and prepare. Even with the gift of voicing your goodbyes, the pain you experience is profound; it’s as real as brick. Would the loss feel graver had she died suddenly, in a fatal accident? I imagine it would, mostly because frustration would cloud the loss. Unanswered questions and hopes; no time for preparation. Impractical items tucked into a suitcase in the middle of the night—you were unprepared. We can plan and arrange right down to the bottom of our secure to-do lists, but we never know how we’ll really respond until we’re in the thick of it. Usually, though, when given the opportunity to put on our seatbelts, the whiplash of change doesn’t hurt as much. Preparation, our defense, dulls the pain. That same expectation also diminishes our happiness.
So the best and worst we can experience comes when we’re least expecting it, even for Charlie Brown and Linus. We walk into it with our eyes closed. Maybe it’s why they say, “it will happen when you stop looking for it.” The key is not letting it go, savoring it, while we have it, even when we know it might not last. And when it’s pain, instead of joy, reminding ourselves that it’s our response to the unexpected events, to the malicious words from strangers who cower behind a cloak of anonymity, which will shape who we are. Respond with fortitude and grace and you might just surprise yourself.