One of the most interesting ideas in positive psychology over the last couple of decades is the idea of “manufactured happiness”—that is, the idea that your brain makes yourself happier as a result of certain behaviors. Daniel Gilbert, who has done a lot of research on happiness and choice, conducted one study on this topic that assessed an individual’s satisfaction with their choice of picture to take home with them. What they found was interesting: when given a choice to change their mind vs. being committed to their selection of print, they found that the respondents were less happy.
Now, the closest example from the general rule of human behavior that you probably already know is that you are almost always less happy when you compare yourself to others because you always seem to find at least one person better off than you in some way that you care about and then feel worse about yourself as a result. In this study, when you can change your mind, you continue to weigh the pros and cons of each option and, therefore, focus more on the faults of your choice or the advantages of the other option. When you commit, however, you focus more on what you like about your choice because you’re stuck with it and no longer need to critique it to select it over something else.
The resulting happier state that you’re in with a choice you’ve committed to vs. one you aren’t sure about is one example of “manufactured happiness” that Daniel and his colleagues have identified. Relating it to the Desire + Belief + Experience = Emotions formula in the Emotions chapter of The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, the idea is that you are focusing on the beliefs regarding the desirability of your selection and, therefore, have a more positive emotion toward the option.
This is a powerful insight for people who want to feel better about their lives because many people are indecisive and never decide to move forward in anything that interests them and then wonder why their lives feel unfulfilled. If you haven’t really “lived”—taken risks, pursued things that interest you, etc.—then you won’t feel like you have.
But there is more to this than just the idea that you can feel better (regardless of reality) by committing. Commitment is one of the drivers of accomplishment and success. Anyone can just start something; few see it all the way through to the end or until they are the best at something. No one just woke up one day and completed a juggling world record; they had to train for years. No one woke up won day and won a Super Bowl by playing in their first game or drew a world-famous painting a few minutes after picking up a paintbrush. It is not a coincidence that you achieve the feeling of fulfillment when you fulfill something—a lifelong dream, a family, an achievement, a career. Fulfillment by definition requires that you see something through to the end. Now, thankfully, the emotion of fulfillment allows you to feel whole along the journey as well, just as feeling successful happens as you’re improving and not just when you succeed. But feeling whole requires you to realize your full potential, and that requires you to complete something of significance to you along the way.
So, whether it’s building a deck for your house, getting married, attaining a high school or college degree, or any other accomplishment you can think of, it is important to commit to something if you want to feel long-term fulfillment regarding your life experience. You don’t have to do it with everything, as you might pick the wrong job or major and need to change it. That’s part of the learning experience. But when you find the right thing, you do need to go after it and see it through.
Now, this post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t address all three reasons why people don’t commit: FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), it’s right for now but might not be right forever and so you don’t want to be trapped, and you end up changing your mind as you learn more. We discussed the last one just a moment ago, as you don’t have to commit to anything up front and can take time to learn and possibly change your mind before you commit. People do that all the time with trial periods for products, dating for relationships, and the first two years of college for majors.
The first reason is a legitimate issue for serious commitments like marriage, children, houses, cars, and other long-term, large investments. Obviously, you don’t want to start here with commitment if you’re new to it; instead, start with smaller things like finishing a personal project or a book or something that requires many hours of your time. Once it’s not commitment that you’re afraid of but the specific thing you’re committing to, you can do the soul searching you need to make a good decision.
That leaves the second reason, feeling right about it now but trapped if you’re committed in the long term. This is actually a great concern to have. After all, you might like video games when you’re younger and then grow out of it when you age and so you don’t want to become a professional gamer. Similarly, you might like a person but know that they want to have kids and you don’t. Trade-offs like having a(nother) child with someone you love and want to stay with even if you don’t want (another) one are the toughest you’ll ever face and are too much to analyze in a simple blog post. But what we do know from psychology that should make life decisions a little easier is what we learned from that Daniel Gilbert study: you’ll either be able to change your mind, or you’ll learn to live with or even enjoy the decision you commit to. Yes, you want to be very careful to avoid divorce, short sales, jobs that become automated, or other catastrophic consequences of bad decisions, but you can always get through anything that you commit to and later find out that you need to go in another direction.
So the overall takeaway for this post is that if you feel lost in life, committing to something is an option to give yourself more purpose. You see it all the time in people who have children, join the military, or begin a new fitness regimen or personal project. The result of their efforts is usually a sense of progress, accomplishment, and fulfillment. Yes, you have to pick the right thing if you want to stick with it, but there are also plenty of people who learned to play an instrument or learned a language in school and then never played or used it after they graduated but still found the experience rewarding. So try committing to something and see if your attitude toward life improves and you begin to feel better about yourself, where you are, and your capacity for a better future.