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

  • Jason

    Journaling is the absolute #&@*! By revising previous journal entries, I often find recurring themes in my writing. I used to think there were a billion different complexities and problems in my life. When you actually write them down and reread them over time, you realise that most of your problems fall neatly into a couple different categories. This makes everything much more manageable.

  • Richard | RichardShelmerdine.c

    Jason I know what you mean. Once you get something onto paper it becomes much easier and all the permutations you create in your mind are ridiculous. Nice post Scott, I agree and think we have to go after a state of non-attachment.

  • Chris Fritz

    I agree that reflection is the key to really discovering our motivations. It may sound absurd to some, but just as you (and certainly I) have pursued many activities that didn’t bring us any kind of substantial happiness, so many others do the same, quite oblivious to how they really feel and therefore unable to predict what will really bring greater contentment.

    When we’re truly honest with ourselves however, I think we’ll realize that instrumental happiness is fleeting and ultimately, not worth pursuit. Having worthy goals is important, but it must be the pursuit of a goal that brings us happiness, not the result of reaching that goal. For example, I might strive to be the perfect husband or to end poverty. If I put happiness at the end of these goals however, I’ll likely never be happy. As Shakespeare once penned, “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” Harry Chapin’s grandfather http://bit.ly/aYoMSK would also agree.

    I think as long as we maintain real experiential happiness – as long as we can constantly pursue activities that put us into flow and bring us contentment – we can make sure we’re on track to nurturing a lasting happiness. Like in education, if we are often in flow, we’ll inevitably be learning a lot. If we’re bored and feel like we’re wasting our time, we undoubtedly are.

    I highly recommend The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler for more on this. You don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the simple wisdom. In fact, the arguments tend to be more targeted at the intellect.

  • Kenny

    Fantastic post Scott! Thank You 🙂

    At the moment I’m playing a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) called Aion, which consumes about 3 hours a day average next to my full-time job (40 hours a week). And gaining something in Aion is more important to me then enjoying it which seriously frustrates me allot, even more knowing what I do enjoy. In the past few months I’ve gathered information about Internet Marketing and I want to start business online, I got all the knowhow to make a start and I think this will make me feel better about myself, it’s just that I don’t DO IT. Why do I mix those two up? Scott?

  • paurullan

    I had never seen writing a journal as a chance to revise your path in order to understand the present. I will keep that in mind and maybe begin to write again.

    On the main theme of the post I would say that I have felt it before even I had not fully understood the why. I remember ten years ago I wanted a radio-control fuel-powered car model. Although I learned a lot of mechanics those days (in order to understand how the car worked) after a couple of days of finally buying it I put it inside a closet and never took it out.

    The first thing I did to «fix» it was to understand there was no misstep: the fun part is the journey and not the arrival. Saving the money, mounting and dismantling the model with my own hands and getting dirt with fuel was an adventure I would have never had; so no regrets and look for new challenges.

    The real funny thing became later when I realized I wanted the model to put a camera on it and make a program that made the car go from the bathroom to the kitchen. So having a liking failure made me understand I enjoyed tinkering with computers. Take back the path up to the latest crossroad and try to think why you took that way.

  • Wendy Irene

    I often try to think about the difference when making decisions. Sometimes it can be so hard. I wonder if a pro/con list would help? Other times you don’t realize until it is too late. Always trying to shift things towards what makes my family and myself the most happy is the way I like to roll. Depending on the situation it can be a slow process though, but one worth doing nonetheless. Have a great day!

  • Nick

    This is going to seem really trivial, but its the first example I thought of. I was dating a girl last year who made much more money than I did. She shopped at finer stores, wore better clothes, had a better place than me, the whole nine yards. I decided to shop at one of the stores she shopped at and bought some clothes. I usually love buying clothes- its one of my favorite things. But that day, as I was taking the bus back to my apartment, I felt so unfullfilled and used. I recognized right away that I was trying to change this piece of myself to become more like her/so she would like me more. I decided after I got home that the style of life I was trying to emulate wasnt me. And so, I’ve never been back to those stores.
    Like I said, pretty trivial, but I think it makes sense.

  • Richard @ WpSplitTester

    I did an interesting exercise a few years ago where I was struggling to decide *what* I wanted – quite simply that I didn’t want what I had. It was a bit of a depressing time thinking “I’m not happy, but I don’t know what to do to *make* me happy”.

    So I sat down with a pen and paper and carefully thought about the happiest times in my life. One was a vacation, for example. Another was my years at university.

    Once I had a list of experiences that made me feel all “warm and fuzzy” and analyzed each in turn, asking myself *why* I was so happy at these points. I came up with whole pages of ideas and reasons. I was quite shocked about all the things that made me feel good!

    Then I looked for common factors to see which were the most “happiness inducing” for me and put a plan into action that would enable me to achieve and experience these on a regular basis.

    I’m not quite there yet but things are improving all the time as I am able to implement my plan so this is certainly a process worth considering for anyone else struggling to make a plan.

  • Rondon

    One good example of what Scott described that happened to me is when I was trying to disinfect and cleaning up my family’s computer(s). I had more fun removing viruses and junk files, than using the actually _using_ the computers.

    On a related note, I’m often tasked by my pals to find “free” online movies. My heart skips a beat looking googling for those sites, and when I found them and gave the links to my pals I’m done. Actually _watching_ the movies had no appeal to me.

  • Jim Greenwood

    Hi Scott,
    So much could be said about the vast content in your post. Thanks.
    However, I’ll try to limit myself to a short comment.

    Reaching your ideal life … a heady topic. I believe the only one who can develop your ideal life for you, IS YOU. You are your teacher. Life is practice, and your goal is to develop the authentic YOU.

    A question to consider is when do would(s), should(s) and could(s) become want’s? (the difference between like and want fits in here).

    Supporting your roles, relationships and history (both looking backward and forward) are ten Intertwined Area of Movement (IAMs). We all balance and define our lives on their paths.

    Writing is an excellent tool (I think one of the best). Writing brings sense to things (thinking is non-sense). There are many forms of valuable personal writing. I use Moving Forward Writing (MFW) because it uses Personal Journey, Personal Script and Personal Lists to help in the movement forward.

    I guess I’d like to add one more perspective. You can’t correct mistakes. You can forgive them and learn from them.

    Whoa! Perhaps I’ve said too much for a short comment.
    Anyway, thanks for the energy.
    Have Fun,

  • Nate Chastain

    I think reaching your ideal life will make you as happy as you can possibly be, but only if you have the proper conception of what an ideal life is:

    An ideal life is one in which you are spending as much of your time as possible the way you want to be spending it, and as little of your time as possible in ways you don’t want to be spending it. Often, people want to spend their time making progress on long-term goals. These goals don’t necessarily have to be project-related, they could also be things like “Be there for my children.”

    As a time management consultant, this conception of an ideal life is often what I stress when prospective clients ask why I feel time management is important.

    An ideal life is not…
    A salary
    A career
    A retirement community

  • AHA

    Excellent points. I’d like to add to this that I think a lot of this has to do with a tangled mental model. Ie an imperfect/unrealistic representation of your want in your head. Even if you get exactly what you want it’s still not satisfactory since the neuro-linguistic model you have of something can’t possibly map perfectly onto reality. The solution here is to become a better cartographer, ie becoming more luminous as they say over at Less Wrong, and also using more and smaller success maps so that your entire satisfaction life doesn’t stand or fall with a vague mental sketch so to speak.

  • Alu

    All this notes and the texts are talking about happiness and ideal life. I think that anxiety, fears and doubts about the best way to follow is natural for human mind and we have to pass through it invariably. We have our natural vocacion, the pressure of the society and the circumstances playing at the same time all the moments and creating false goals and doubtful ways. The main challenge is not find the correct answers to find what we really enjoy or want, this is an eternal pursuit. The real challenge in ideal life is to feel happy no matter you are going right or wrong (always there´ll be wrong steps). We cannot join happiness and pursuit for what we want or enjoy. They are at different levels.

  • GVK

    I think the main problem is not so much the difference in brain functions (although it plays its part), as the perception of the goal or a situation that would be created when we achieve it. I’ve found that in situations when I was disappointed with my goals, my initial perception of the goal or its benefits was different from reality. This was more frequent when I was younger and my views of the world were based on either idealized or outdated information about the state of things. The reality was usually different, not necessarily bad, just different. Things that mattered were different. Things that seemed important in the beginning were trivial and some factors that I didn’t consider at all, were very important. With experience, our ability to gauge certain situations (new job, studies, relationship), becomes better as we see certain things repeating themselves. We begin to generate stereotypes and use them in predicting the results of our goals. Sometimes we can use other people’s advice, but more often we can’t understand it until we experince the situation ourselves.