Why we choose change, even if it doesn’t make us happier

When a major event happens in our lives, it rarely makes us happier. According to a piece of research I read a while ago (which I can’t find anymore!), most people would prefer a quiet life to an exciting one. This may sound a bit sad, but it’s the plain truth: changes are upsetting and always involve unexpected circumstances, which translate into exhaustion, adjustments, risks. Yet it is precisely those major events, whether planned or not, that give sense to our lives. Who could argue with that?

Falling in love, having a child, starting a job, falling sick, losing someone, changing jobs: these are the so-called milestones of our lives, those which will eventually shape it and make up our own essence. However, none of them, in their day-to-day normality, will guarantee our happiness. A study on 909 working mothers by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of seminal books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow and his latest work Noise, investigated the relation between the satisfaction given by a certain activity and its day-to-day emotional responses. Take, for example, the satisfaction of being a mother and the emotions generated by interacting with one’s children: what is their relation? Over the past few years, several studies have noted how parents often express fewer feelings of happiness than non-parents, which led Harvard professor Dan Gilbert to write:

The only symptom of empty nest syndrome is the inability to stop smiling.

In other words, everyday life puts even our best narratives to the test. Some life dimensions, at the heart of our identity, manifest all their complexity and richness as daily challenges involving tiredness, emotions, and patience. So much so that, if we could only theoretically decide what to do, we might eventually choose to not be than be.

Granted, the list of daily tasks performed by a working mother, described by Kahneman’s study, is impressive. It is easy to sympathise with the tiredness curve of women throughout their days (interesting to note how mothers who are younger than 30 wake up feeling more tired than older ones – a matter of sleepless nights or a habit?). It is also not surprising that social activities involving friendship and fun, such as prayer, TV and exercise, are those returning the most positive emotions…  Even cooking or being on the phone come before spending time with children (which, in turn, precedes sitting at one’s desk, cleaning the house and working). What does it all have to do with the meaning of life, and with “major” choices such as becoming a parent?

As professor Paul Bloom says in The Atlantic, major events, with the identity dimensions they create in ourselves, shape the sense of our lives. And yet, this seems to have little if no impact on our happiness. Indeed, happiness expresses itself in the positive emotions generated by daily activities. Happiness is a moment of awareness and can be so unexpected to go unnoticed. However, those moments of happiness should be framed into a much wider context, which allows them to surface but also contains much, much more. This framework is the meaning we give to our own lives.

The sense with which we fill our actions depends on the blueprint we have imagined for our existence: on whether we see it at all, on how clearly we see it, on whether we are able to question it and adjust it to circumstances. This perimeter has no ideal shape: it can be more or less linear, large or irregular, and is constantly changing.

It is the kind of framework that becomes unfitting after a major event, like a pandemic, motherhood or sickness, makes it no longer suitable to the meaning of our life. We ourselves change shape and consequently need to adjust the way we show up and portray ourselves.

Whether having a child, finding love, getting a new job or fulfilling a dream will make us happier is, itself, a spurious issue. The real question to ask ourselves might be whether we are still able to give sense to the events of our lives, no matter it they happen by chance or are induced by us. Our days are made of schedules, activities, tasks, routines and emotions, and sometimes of discoveries, twists and surprises. Meanwhile, our lives surround them with their constantly evolving meaning – and it is upon us, the narrators, to give it to them.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here