Cognitive Biases That Keep You From Being Happy

Feeling totally burnt out

When it comes to happiness, we can often be our own worst enemy. If you’ve ever felt the stomach-churning after-effects of a junk food binge or wasted away a night negatively comparing yourself to everyone who seems to have a perfect life on display across social networks, you know this truth all too well.

But even when we think we’re on our best behavior, our minds can still be working against us.

The fields of psychology and economics have long been interested in cognitive biases or errors that our minds make when assessing information or making decisions. Most of them lead us to make less than optimal choices, experience emotions we’d rather avoid, and altogether keep us from being our best selves. Some of these biases are remnants of thinking patterns that were adaptive in earlier periods of our evolutionary history, but backfire in the modern world.

Nearly all of the biases operate outside our awareness, so before we can stop them, we first have to understand them. While there are dozens of ways in which our brains can fail us, three of these biases are particularly significant when it comes to making decisions that improve our happiness.

Confirmation Bias

First up, this bias is our brain at its most stubborn. The confirmation bias is the tendency for us to take in and interpret information in a way that supports what we already believe and to ignore that which refutes our current stance.

It’s like being on a traffic-jammed highway with a driver whose GPS is giving directions for an alternate route that’s 15 minutes faster, but he defiantly says, “Nope, we’re going this way and we’re going to keep going this way.” This plays out in our lives by maintaining beliefs that may have very little evidence to support them.

And if that belief is one that doesn’t serve you, you’re stuck living in an imaginary world that’s worse than it should be.

For instance, if you’re heading in for your first day at a new job and having a not-so-confident day, you might expect that your new coworkers won’t like you. After you introduce yourself to the team, you catch a couple folks look at you and then talk quietly to each other. Because you already have an expectation that your coworkers aren’t going to like you, you assume that they’re talking badly about you (already!). In reality, this is a very unclear piece of information and it’s likely they were discussing a project or something from a meeting earlier in the week. When another three coworkers come over to invite you to lunch with them, you don’t give that much merit, because you’re still thinking about those two from the morning. Over time, you can end up strongly reinforcing a belief that is not at all based in fact simply because your mind is stubbornly looking for all the reasons to argue its case.

Brain-Defying Tip: Be your own devil’s advocate. When you sense a trouble area in your life, reflect and identify any beliefs you have that are part of the problem.

Name the belief and ask yourself the questions that a lawyer would who was trying to prove you wrong.

Impact Bias

In a landmark study on what drives happiness, people who recently became lottery winners were compared to people who recently became paralyzed. The researchers found that when it comes to big events in our lives, whether positive or negative, we tend to exhibit a happiness adaptation. This means that while big changes in our lives do affect our happiness, the changes usually aren’t as significant and don’t last as long as we expect.

Even after reading this, you might be thinking to yourself, “If I won $10 million, I would definitely be a happier person!” And while you’re probably right that you would be somewhat happier, you’re also likely under the spell of the impact bias.

This is when we overestimate how future events will affect us emotionally. We think that going through a breakup of our relationship is going to destroy us. We expect that buying a new house is going to boost our joy for decades to come. In reality, these changes don’t affect us as much as we think they will. So when we plan ahead for our future, we often invest too much in events and material goods that we think will create lasting happiness. Conversely, we fear ​making changes in areas of our life that aren’t working because we underestimate how resilient we really are.

Brain-Defying Tip: Broaden your perspective. When you imagine a future event affecting your happiness, remind yourself of all the other areas of your life that will be humming along with their joys and challenges. Family. Career. Friends. Health. When we see how future events fit into the context our bigger lives, we more accurately assess how we’ll respond emotionally to them.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Finally, since you’ve already given up your time to read this far, you might as well learn about the third bias. If you’re not really that interested and would rather go do some laundry, but you’re going to read on anyway, you, my friend, are falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost is a term in economics that refers to money (or time or energy) you’ve already invested into something that can’t be recouped. At this current moment, you have a choice to continue on with your decision or to change course and do something differently. But the investments you’ve already made can dramatically increase the likelihood you’ll stay the course, even if the course doesn’t make you particularly happy.

The sunk cost fallacy can affect us in minor ways. Have you ever channel-surfed to a movie that’s not particularly interesting, but you keep watching because you’ve already started it? Or you bought that shirt that you quickly realized was the ugliest item in your wardrobe, but it’s not returnable, so you wear it anyway. But it can also have larger consequences. We may find ourselves a decade into a job or career field that we don’t enjoy but hesitate to leave since we’ve invested so much time already. The sunk cost fallacy often leads us to settle for unhappiness because we choose things we don’t want simply to rationalize all that we’ve invested so far.

Brain-Defying Tip: Know when to call it quits. If you’re questioning a current goal or path you’ve been investing in, ask yourself, “If I could start fresh right now, would I still choose this?” If not, consider what other choices you might realistically make that would be better, and if a smart, inspired option exists, consider quitting the path you’re on and making a choice that honors your happiness instead.