F.H. = A.E.
Here we find represented the most basic view of happiness — the one most people find to be true. In this formula, “felt happiness” is directly equal to A.E. (the “actual events” of life). This formula suggests that happiness is simply and exclusively based on the events and circumstances of life. It is a formula for happiness that makes perfect sense of life: if good things happen, we’ll feel happy — if bad things happen, we’ll feel unhappy.
It’s an elegantly simple formula, and it seems to make such logical sense that most people are quite content with it. But, on closer scrutiny, there is something wrong with it. If happiness is totally based on what happens to us, why are some people so much happier than others are, given the exact same circumstances?
The problem is, that the formula doesn’t include any factor to explain individual differences in perception. In other words, happiness is not just a matter of individual circumstances (or the “actual events” that happen in life), it is also determined upon how we interpret the events which occur.
There are many ways to put this, but as I wrote several years ago:
Happiness is not what you have, it’s how you view what you have! (citing).
There is little doubt that no two people experience the same situation exactly the same way. Indeed, such individual differences in perception provides one of the most fundamental cornerstones of modern psychology. In everyday experience, we encounter this phenomenon all the time. Still, it never fails to amaze us…
You and a friend go to a party: you had a great time; your friend thought it was lousy.
You and your spouse see a movie: you hated it; your spouse loved it.
What accounts for such different reactions?
Well, psychologists know that our unique reactions to the “actual events” of life are mediated by literally hundreds of subtle psychological mechanisms. Our past experiences, our values, our beliefs, our attitudes — all effect how we view the things that happen to us. But more than these, our fears, our insecurities, our prejudices, our hopes, our dreams — these also contribute to the way see the world. Everything we experience is actually biased, to some degree, by these inner dispositions.
In fact, we become so expert at biasing our interpretation of events, it’s no wonder no two people see things quite the same way. Psychologists know that we develop all kinds of perceptual defenses to mollify painful reality. “Denial,” “rationalization,” “intellectualization,” “reaction formation,” “scapegoating,” “projection” — these are just a few of the technical terms that describe the many ways individuals distort reality.
Thus our formula, as it stands, doesn’t explain much about happiness at all. For the formula to work, it has to take into account these psychological biases as well. To do this, our formula would have to include hundreds of factors. But for the sake of our present topic, let’s begin with just one: the factor of expectations.