Will Reaching the Ideal Life Make You any Happier?

Are you going in the right direction?

Much of what I write here is centered around the pursuit of the ideal life. There are plenty of problems with that pursuit: perfection is impossible, we have limitations, and how do you define “ideal.”

But, for the most part, I believe thinking about what the ideal way to live, and making small steps forward, is usually a good thing. Perfection may be impossible, and obstacles may get in the way, but we can at least strive to live well.

Beyond the obvious problems, lies a deeper challenge: what if you don’t actually enjoy the things you’re striving for?

Wanting and Liking Aren’t The Same

Recent research shows that wanting and liking are controlled separately in the brain:

“liking is mediated by opioid  systems and primary sensory and valuation regions, whereas wanting is encoded by midbrain dopamine activity in efferent regions such as nucleus accumbens”

This suggests you can artificially make someone want something more, while causing them to like it less.

And, in a clever experiment, researchers showed exactly that. Subjects in the “jilted” condition were manipulated to both want a prize more, and work harder for it, while at the same time value the prize less when they actually received it:

“…this finding is astonishing, since the decreased ‘liking’ was displayed exactly by those participants who had reported greater ‘wanting’ for the particular gift card. The same event – having failed to win the card in the first attempt – had simultaneously affected participant’s wanting and liking for the gift card in opposite directions.”

Strengthened Desires for Things You Don’t Like?

While the study used gift-cards as the objects of participants’ desires, it isn’t too hard to imagine this playing out in a more significant context.

Imagine you’re seeing someone. After a few dates, everything seems to be going well. Then she rejects you, or he doesn’t call anymore.

Now you’re split, not being able to have this person makes you want them even more. But at the same time, being rejected or avoided makes you like them less. “She isn’t as nice a person as I thought… but maybe she’s also the one?”

Motivation Isn’t Always Rational

I’ve written before that research suggests people are often happier at work, even though they strive to avoid it. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggested this was due to flow: work pushes us into flow, television often does not. That might explain his bizarre finding.

But reframing the problem through the issue of wanting and liking makes it easier to understand. If wanting and liking are controlled separately in the brain and can be pushed in opposite directions, it isn’t surprising that sometimes we have low motivation for things (such as the difficult, but enjoyable mental state of flow) that we derive the most joy from.

Misguided Dreams and the Pursuit of the Ideal Life

Gift-cards, flow and unrequited love may be three clear examples, but I believe to a certain extent the difference between wanting and liking hampers even our pursuit of the ideal life.

Thinking about the ideal life essentially comes down to our own dreams and desires. Do you want a 3-car garage and a hot girlfriend? Or do you dream about running an online business and being able to live anywhere in the world? Any discussion about what makes a life ideal, inevitably asks, “what do you want?”

However, if our motivations can be influenced separately from our enjoyment, there is a sinister question beneath all our efforts:

What if we reach the ideal life, but don’t actually enjoy it?

Is it Worthwhile to Untangle the Paradox of Motivation?

We don’t always want what we enjoy, and we don’t always enjoy what we’ve spent a long time lusting after. This isn’t news.

Literature is so full of characters who reach their dreams and then turn out to resent them, it’s become a cliché. Isn’t falling for mirages just an inevitable risk we accept when taking on a challenging goal?

I’m not sure you can eliminate the risk. But considering the thousands of hours we’ll spend over our lives, pursuing the right education, finding the right spouse, advancing our career, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little time untangling whether those pursuits are on-target?

Creating a Breadcrumb Trail Separating Wants from Enjoyment

Knowing where you’ve been is the best way to avoid getting lost. Part of my answer to the paradox of motivation has been to keep a journal for the last several years. It’s not a daily record of events, just a place where I can write every several days and think through bigger issues in my life.

One of the benefits of maintaining this habit over the years, is that I have extensive records of what issues were on my mind at different points in my life. This becomes a breadcrumb trail I can follow later when figuring out what I should pursue in the future.

I can look at two types of entries–ones where I write about the pursuit of a goal. There I can notice two things: how much motivation I want for the goal, and how much stress or enjoyment pursuing the goal creates for me.

I can also view entries which talk about my current mental state. Seeing the frequency of enthusiastic vs depressed ramblings, gives a rough picture of how much I was enjoying my life and why.

Then the equation is simple: for the motivations I had, did they pay off? Did they make me instrumentally or experientially happier?

Surprising Conclusions from My Breadcrumb Trail

An interesting finding just from reviewing my own entries, was that having a larger social group wasn’t better than a smaller group. The times when I was surrounded by many people were often worse than when I spent more time with fewer, but closer, friends.

Despite this, my motivation has almost always been to expand my group and focus on meeting new people. Contracting my social group was rarely a priority even though in some cases it might have been the smart move.

Another interesting finding is related to travel. Simply that I typically enjoy working at home more than traveling. I look back fondly on short-term travel, but the actual act I enjoy less.

Here, the solution has been to rethink how I travel. Make it less about sightseeing and more about spending time with people. Longer-term travel where I live in a place for several months may also be a better alternative for me.

Of course, my message isn’t that you should contract your social group or travel less. Those were just my examples. The real lesson is that keeping a journal can give you the ability to go back in time and correct mistakes you made in the pursuit of the ideal life.

Rekindling the Naive Enthusiasm

It’s almost become expected that aging involves becoming more jaded and cynical about the world. Perhaps this is partially because pursuing wants that don’t satisfy us is soul-crushing.

Keeping a journal and rethinking some of your motivations may seem overly analytical. But the goal isn’t to doubt or question everything, just the opposite. It’s to rediscover the motivations that actually satisfy us and pursue them wholeheartedly. To rekindle the naive enthusiasm for pursuing our dreams, worrying less whether they will burn us.

Question for the Readers: When have your motivations not been aligned with what you actually enjoy? What steps did you take to find and fix them? Please share your answers in the comments.

Image by FreeWine