What do we need to monitor to stay happy?

Our expectations.

Maria Konnikova has a good piece in Big Think that covers how our expectations can lead us to be distressed even when, objectively, we should be happy:

The key here is the negative mismatch between expectations and reality. It’s known as the contrast effect: people contrast what they thought would happen with what actually happened, and when the comparison is not favorable, satisfaction plummets (though if you’re generally an optimist, you’ll likely fare better). For instance, if you expect to enjoy a movie, but find it dull, you will be more unhappy than if you had no prior expectations at all. If you expect to find it dull but find yourself laughing instead, you will be more happy than if you’d already thought you were going to see a funny movie.


Think of it this way. If you live in Chicago, take a winter vacation to Miami, and upon arriving find yourself in the middle of a partly cloudy 70-degree day, you will likely be quite pleased indeed. After all, you’ve just come from the snow. Now, that same you at the end of the vacation, after a week of sunny days in the mid-80s, would likely be disappointed if your last day were to be the mirror image of the first: in that week, you’ve gotten used to a different point of comparison. Now, your expectations serve to make you upset. I can’t believe the weather is so miserable on our very last day!, you may well think. You no longer remember how happy that exact same weather made you seven days earlier.

But wouldn’t it serve you well to remember that the weather is still much, much better than what you’re returning to? It might take a little extra effort, but changing your point of comparison so that the reality falls in line with your expectations is a powerful mental trick. It can improve your enjoyment and your appreciation many times over. All it takes is a change of the frame of reference.

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