4 rules for making decisions you’ll always be happy with

Five-ish years ago, my husband and I put an offer on a house.

My husband had to be talked into it because he was looking for something perfect (and this house wasn’t). I didn’t really care about perfection because we were a few months away from baby number two arriving and just wanted the whole ‘house issue’ to be sorted.

As long as the price was right, I felt the house ticked all the right boxes for our soon-to-be family of four.

In the end the price wasn’t right, and the offer fell through.

One month later we found (and bought) the vacant block of our dreams. And we’ve since built the house of our dreams on it.

Now, what if we’d bought that ‘imperfect’ house in the end? Would it have been the worst decision ever?

Would it have affected our future happiness?

Because that’s really what we’re trying to figure out whenever we make a decision. We’re trying to predict what happiness it will bring us in the future.

But, what if I told you there’s just about no such thing as a bad decision? What if I told you pretty much any decision you make could bring future happiness? (Yes, there are obvious caveats to this, but stay with me.)

In his incredibly popular TED talk, The surprising science of happiness, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about our psychological immune system:

“A system of cognitive processes … that help [humans] change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.”

It’s this psychological immune system that enables us to be happy no matter what situation we find ourselves in.

Which brings me to four rules for making decisions you’ll always be happy with:

1. Stop trying to avoid regret

When we’re agonising over something, trying to decide which of two directions to take, we’re really trying to avoid is the regret of one option presenting itself as ‘better’ after the fact.

We need to stop trying to avoid regret. Regret happens. Then our psychological immune system kicks in (if we let it!) and we quickly move on.

Yes, if my husband and I had bought that house and then found out about our dream block, there would have been regret.

But our ‘imperfect’ house, complete with pool, entertaining area and park across the road, would have quickly cancelled out that ‘regret’. We would have congratulated ourselves for not taking on the stress of building a house and having to move in with my poor father-in-law for three years.

2. The difference between two possible futures is usually much smaller than we think

When a decision isn’t clear-cut; when we’re agonising between two options, it’s often because the potential difference in future happiness between the two is tiny.

Do you see that it’s ridiculous to tie yourself in knots trying to choose between two outcomes that will both result in a similar degree of happiness?

It’s like tossing back and forth for hours whether to have the Maggie Beer Chocolate and Salted Caramel Ice-Cream, or the Burnt Fig, Honeycomb and Caramel Ice-Cream. Oh my god, they’re both going to be awesome, so just choose one already!

3. The bigger the decision, the more likely you’ll be happy with it

In The surprising science of happiness, Gilbert cites a study he constructed that showed the less reversible a decision is, the more likely you’ll be happy with it. And few things are less reversible than big life decisions — moving to another country, buying a new house, changing careers, deciding to have children, etc.

These are the decisions we expend the most energy on, desperately weighing up the potential differences in future happiness they’ll bring. I think it’s pretty good news to find out that, no matter which direction we go with these major life decisions, our future happiness will be essentially the same.

4. Synthesised happiness is not to be sneered at

You’ve probably picked up by now that humans can, and do, make their own happiness.

For some reason we think the happiness that ‘happens’ to us (when life is good) is superior to the happiness we make. We think that ‘making the best of a bad situation’ is somehow faking it.

2010 and 2011 were pretty crappy years for me personally. While mired in an unholy trinity of stress, anxiety and depression I also experienced four miscarriages and the suicide of a close friend.

Now take a look at my 2012-13.

Those two years featured nine months of crushing anxiety while pregnant with my second child. Early complications in the pregnancy didn’t just further that anxiety, they meant I missed a long-anticipated overseas family holiday. We moved house one month after my daughter’s birth (moving is acknowledged as one of life’s most highly stressful events). Shortly after that I suffered post-natal depression. Then my beloved grandma died. I was also fighting so much with my husband about our business I wasn’t sure our marriage would survive.

Yet I rate those two years as some of the best and happiest of my life, and I believe it’s because my psychological immune system was in full flight. It let me regard the bad stuff in an almost detached fashion, like it was happening to someone else. Meanwhile, all the good stuff that was happening stayed at the top of my consciousness.

Bottom line

When it comes to making good decisions, I think the most important thing we all need to do is stop trying to extract maximum happiness from them. With few exceptions, any decision you make has the power to make you happy. So long as you let your psychological immune system do its job in peace 🙂

Comments 9

  1. Oh I love this, Kelly. And I can relate to the agony that is trying to decide between the burnt fig or honeycomb ice-cream!! I have so much decision anxiety at times that it really interferes with my mental health. My life has not been smooth sailing the past few years. In fact, turbulent is the word that I would use! There seems to be no end to the stress treadmill we have been on – a year of miscarriages, death of a relative, death of a close friend, 18-months of house-hunting, many houses missed at auction, health issues with parents, difficult pregnancy, even more difficult BABY, and it goes on. Do you have any advice for how to get off the stress treadmill? We no longer have any big decisions to make, as we’ve decided to build our own home (inviting more stress into our lives) but I wonder how I can make our “luck” change. Do you get what I mean? Fabulous post, as always xx

    1. Hey lovely – that stress treadmill is a shocker isn’t it? And is very anxiety provoking. I think the best way to get off it is *slowly*. Especially while bubba is still small. Be super-kind to yourself, take very very small steps in the direction you want to go, don’t beat yourself up when there are small ‘regressions’ and I promise, in a year, you’ll look back and go ‘huh, that’s some big progress, and I didn’t even notice it happening!’

  2. Thank you so much for this post! It was exactly what I needed to put my mind at ease over a decision that my husband and I have been trying to make for far too long! We are at the point now where it is crunch time and we HAVE to decide which road we will take. Your words have given me comfort in knowing that either way we go, we can find happiness in it. I have always felt that that is the case, you know, I would “make the most” of either situation, but the 4 points that you made just backed up what I have been feeling all along. I really enjoy your work Kelly, on the blog and the podcast. Thank you!

  3. Hi Kelly, this post plopped into my inbox just as my sis-in-law was texting me from UK asking for advice with a major decision (buying/selling a house). Not having seen the new house and therefore feeling unable to give her any qualified advice, I forwarded her this post. I know your ideas and the concept of a psychological immune system gave her a great deal of relief. It makes such good sense! I’m already a long time fan of your way of thinking. I’ve no doubt she’ll become a fan too. So thank you.

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