But We Can Be Happy
Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, points out on today’s OpEd page of the New York Times that if we know what we have to adapt to, we can be happy. It is uncertainty that is the true source of our misery. In “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous” he describes research that reveals how even grim and painful certainties are easier to cope with than variable hopes.
This might suggest to some that we are more in control of our fates than we usually think. If we can adjust our expectations, accept what we don’t have, we can live with it better. Money will not buy happiness, but knowing how much money you have — or don’t have — gives you a shot at it.
But we can’t just decide not to worry. We really have to know what is in store for us. As he points out, those who have undergone painful and irreversible colostomies know what they have to live with, and, knowing that, they can accept it and become happy. But those of us who face losing our jobs or our homes — or our vacations or retirement savings or health insurance — cannot adjust to what has not yet happened but might easily still be in store for us tomorrow.
There is superficial cheer in the thought that our minds have so much power to make us happy. But a moment’s reflction reveals that the underlying implication of this is highly disturbing. Those living in an economy of constantly shifting highs and lows and a society of unreliable benefits and uncertain safety nets, are not only doomed to unhappiness but anxiety as well.
Our right to the pursuit of happiness may, in fact, ensure that we cannot end up happy after all.