Have you forgotten about happiness?

Imagine a genie appears in front of you and grants you three wishes. The genie will grant any wish you make. What are your three wishes?


Studies show most people focus on three wishes, says Prof Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? They include being granted lots of money, more than enough to cover any and all expenses; being very successful and its accompaniments, such as power, fame and respect; and fulfilling relationships, especially with family and friends.

Hardly anyone, notes Raghunathan, asks for happiness.


Presumably many people want to be wealthy, or successful, or to have satisfying relationships, because they think it will make them happy. If happiness is the ultimate goal, why not wish for that in the first place?


Well, happiness isn’t always people’s ultimate goal. Research shows many people have some negative beliefs about happiness, seeing it as frivolous or selfish or as something that may make them lazy.


Many people do want to be happy, however. In this article, I want to focus on one particular point made by Raghunathan – the fact many people simply forget about happiness as they go about their daily lives. He points out that when participants were reminded that they can wish for anything, including happiness, the percentage of people who ask for happiness rises significantly.


Why might we forget about happiness? One reason is many people get so caught up in whatever they may be chasing – money, respect, whatever — that they forget why they wanted it in the first place.


The term used in Raghunathan’s book is medium maximization – the tendency to forget about the end goal that you want to achieve and to instead pursue the means (or mediums) to that end goal.



Here’s an example. In an experiment, researchers told one one group of participants that they could choose to do either a short task (20 minutes) or a slightly longer task (25 minutes) in return for a reward. If they did the short task, they would get bars of Snickers; if they did the slightly longer task, they could choose between getting Snickers or almond bars.


Most people preferred Snickers to the almond bars; not surprisingly, then, most people thus chose to do the shorter task.


There is a twist to the story, however. A second group of people was given the same tasks to choose from (20 or 25 minutes), but a ‘medium’ was introduced. That is, they were told that they would get 60 points if they chose the short task, which they could then exchange for the Snickers bars. Alternatively, they would get 100 points if they chose the longer task, which they could then exchange for either the Snickers bars or the almond bars.


As already noted, most people preferred the Snickers bars, so there was no point in choosing the longer task. However, the introduction of the medium – the points – changed their response. Now, most participants chose to engage in the longer task.

Why? As Raghunathan notes, the medium distracted them from what they ultimately wanted (enjoying their preferred chocolate). Instead, they focused on maximising the medium – in this case, getting more points.


‘Think about what these findings imply for money – the most common medium’, writes Raghunathan. ‘They suggest that people can get so caught up in chasing money that they forget all about why they wanted the money in the first place.’


Importantly, money is not the only medium that can distract us in this manner. Other goals can be similarly distracting.


For example, someone may seek the prestige associated with climbing the career ladder even though the extra work is affecting family life or work-life balance. Someone might aim to be more popular by putting other people’s needs before their own. Maybe you put too much time and effort into trying to look attractive, stressing yourself out in the process. Or maybe you always want to be right, and this causes friction with friends or loved ones.


People often make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, and that’s entirely sensible. Sometimes, however, we get too caught up in the chase, distracting us from what we may ultimately want – to be happy and content.

(First published in Southern Star on 23/11/2023)