Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Happiness is a perspective. And even a choice.

I know I go off topic now and again, but I want to comment on something today that just seems off topic.  But really it is a core part of user experience.  Watch Alain de Botton's Ted Talk.   It is truly brilliant. Not because he says anything that blows our mind with new information or insight.  But because what he says is something we have known our whole lives, but we never appreciate how important it is to live it, not just to know it.

His basic message is about success and how we define it and how we measure it.  Historically (I'm talking thousands of years here), we lived in small tribes where everyone pretty much had the same experience.  There were a few leaders here and there.  And some people were stronger or better hunters and gatherers.  The shaman got a little more respect than the rest.  But most of the time, for most of the people, your basis for comparison was people just like you. And so your instinctive benchmark for success was not too far off from what and who you were.

But now, we have too much access to the lives of others. Mass media started this trend. We got to see the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."  We could see the yacht and mansions.  We could see their glamorous lives.  And we could be jealous. But it wasn't too traumatic because they are unusual.  We knew that they were a small minority.

Now, social media compounds the problems. For several reasons.  One, we follow our favorite celebrities on Twitter and get their day-by-day lives in all their glory.  They don't seem like those glamorous teen idols anymore.  They seem like regular people who just happen to be more successful than us. So now we have a more personal kind of envy.  They aren't a magical and mysterious minority.  They are people we could have become with just a few small differences in luck, placement, and effort.  It is real jealousy now.  The kind that hurts.

And we also get to see the posts of our ever growing network of social media "friends," colleagues, and other people who have no claim to the magical and mysterious nature of celebrity.  But of course, they mostly post the good stuff.  Or maybe we just read the good stuff.  Either way, we are now comparing our lives to their posted lives.  When we think about our own lives, we can cover it all.  Not just the great view of the sunrise on the commute to work, but also the annoying line at the coffee shop.  The good email and then the five stupid ones. 

Our friends have these too, but we only get exposed to the meaningful ones because that is all they post.  If you think about it, you know that they have the annoying stuff too.  But we don't really waste our time thinking about trivialities like that.  So we blindly scan the Facebook news feed and quickly scan through all of these cool and meaningful posts.  And unconsciously, our lives seem to have so many more of those irritating annoyances than everyone else has. 

You are probably thinking about it now, and knowing that it is not really true.  But the problem is that we do this unconsciously.  And so we unconsciously feel dissatisfied.  Inadequate. Unfulfilled.  It is because of this subtle unconsciousness that makes it insidious.

There is a reason that income has only a very weak relationship with happiness (at the individual, cultural, and national levels).  The quality of life of your comparison group goes up even faster than yours does. 

I have gone beyond Alain de Botton's talk a little, but this is his main message.  Take some time, maybe even each morning when you wake up or each night as you evaluate the ending day, and rethink your goals, your status, what is really important to you, and what you should reasonably expect to achieve. 

If you have your calibration right, you should be doing just fine.  Because when it comes down to it, our lives are objectively pretty good.  Many of us (myself being among the worst) just need to do a better job of appreciating it.