5 Common Biases You Didn’t Know Were Making You Unhappier

On a dark, foggy night, I took a shortcut down a backroad to reach my friend’s house. It was then I learned the lesson that not all shortcuts are beneficial. It took me twice as long to navigate through the foggy, windy roads. I was the last person to reach the house, and I was too drained to even engage with my friends.

As a society, we love shortcuts. They help us reach our destination in faster, more efficient ways. But not all shortcuts benefit us.

I’m reminded of this lesson every time I question the biases swaying my mind. Biases are mental shortcuts, allowing our brains to make decisions faster and easier.

But sometimes, these biases cost us our joy.

Worst part is, we don’t willingly take these shortcuts. Our brains travel along these shortcuts underneath the surface.

Fortunately, you can notice these biases, and change them. If you want to reclaim your mind for joy, then you have to increase your awareness of the biases that drag you down. Awareness is the best medicine.

With this in mind, here are 5 biases to watch out for if you want more joy:

1. The Negativity Bias

Do you ever notice how negative events are easier to remember than positive events? This isn’t something that’s unique to you. We all have an evolutionary proclivity to pay attention to danger, or negativity.

Our primal ancestors had to react very quickly to potential dangers in the wild. Their brains were always scanning for negativity. And once they spotted that negativity, it sparked an instant reaction to cease that negativity. If they spotted a lion, they would run. And the negativity would cease.

We still have this ability in our brains. Only difference is, we’re not able to heal our negativity as easily as running. As a result, negativity lingers longer.

Dr. Rick Hanson said that the amygdala in the brain uses two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. Once it spots this negativity, it quickly stores it in our memory, as opposed to positivity which takes longer to shift to our long-term memory. In the past, this helped us learn and adapt to our environment. Today, it just feeds our negative outlook.

Is there anything we can do to rewrite the negativity in our brains?

The best solution is to recognize when your brain is diving into negativity. If you had an amazing day with friends, but all you remember is your friend’s hurtful comment said in passing, then call out your Negativity Bias. Acknowledge that the comment was only a small fraction of your amazing day, and it’s sticking with you longer because of an inherent bias.

Once you name your Negativity Bias, then you can stop it from dragging you under.

2. The Zero-Sum Bias

A Zero-Sum Bias is defined as a perceived competition of a limited resource. When there’s this perceived competition, the belief is that when one party wins, another one loses.

How does this steal our joy? Pay attention.

Daniel Meegan at the University of Guelph conducted an experiment regarding the Zero-Sum Bias, and his finding were surprising. In the experiment, individuals grades of an exam were presented to a group of students, one after the other. He would have the students predict the next grade before it was presented.

When a string of high grades were presented, the predictions would predict a lower grade to come next. But when a string of low grades were presented, the presentations wouldn’t predict a higher grade. They would still predict a lower grade.

What does this show us? It shows us that the Zero-Sum Bias only applies to the allocation of desirable resources.

Here’s how this affects joy: happiness is a desirable resource, and we believe there’s a competition for it.

Do you ever hold back from sharing good news to others because you fear it would make them less happy? This is because you view happiness as a limited and desirable resource. By sharing your happiness, you somehow feel that you take away from their happiness.

But here’s the catch: we need to share our happiness, successes, and good news with others. It’s one of the easiest ways to spread joy. When we hold back sharing good news, we stop the spread of joy in our own hearts and in the hearts of others.

Happiness is an unlimited resource. By sharing your own happiness, you don’t steal it from others. How they perceive your good news is dependent on their outlook, and you can’t control that. All you can do is share your happiness, and see what follows.

3. The Impact Bias

Someone has just gone through a terrible tragedy, and you respond, “I don’t know what I would do if I were in their shoes.” In your mind, you cannot come back from a tragedy like that. The impact would be too profound.

In reality, you just have the Impact Bias, where you overestimate the impact a positive or negative event would have on you.

Studies on “affective forecasting” — or our ability to predict how we will feel in the future — reveal that we’re terrible at predicting our emotions.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist who studies affective forecasting, performed a study where he measured the predictions of how much receiving tenure would affect the long-term happiness of professors. Turns out, those who didn’t receive tenure were just as happy as those who did.

In another popular study, winners of the lottery were found to have just about the same amount of happiness as paraplegics. An overwhelmingly positive event and an overwhelmingly negative event both resulted in happiness.

Here’s how this affects our present happiness.

When we’re in happy seasons, we tend to wait for the other shoe to drop. We expect that these good times can’t last forever. This is what Dr. Brene Brown calls foreboding joy.

When we do this, we’re making predictions over how a negative event might make us feel, when in reality, we have no idea how we might feel. The Impact Bias leads us to believe that our future will be heavy after negative events. But this is only stealing our current joy.

We have no idea how we will come back from negative experiences. So instead of dreading the negative events of the future, thinking they will shatter us into nothing, we should dive into the joy present before us.

4. The Availability Heuristic

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to have a dreadful outlook of the world. You would think the world is getting worse. And if you ask your friends their opinion on the matter, they would most likely agree that the world is getting worse.

Except that it’s not.

In his bestselling book, Factfulness, the late Hans Rosling uses data to prove that the world is actually getting better. This book instantly changed my perspective of the world.

So if there’s so much data about the world getting better, why don’t we believe it?

This is due to the Availability Heuristic.

Even though the world is becoming less violent, less uneducated, and less impoverished, we’re still presented with a view of the world that contradicts this data. And because this information is more readily available to us, we assume that the world is becoming more violent, more uneducated, and more impoverished.

The Availability Heuristic is when we overestimate the information we can readily remember and underestimate the information we don’t hear about. Because the news cycle highlights the bad news more often, we assume the bad news occurs more often.

This steals our joy by tainting our outlook of the world. If you look at the facts instead of what’s only presented to you, then you might be able to keep your hope for a better future alive.

5. The Optimism Bias

In a famous study done in 1980, researcher Neil Weinstein discovered an interesting phenomenon at play in our minds. He analyzed over 200 students, and found that the majority of them predicted their likelihood of experiencing negative events was below average and their likelihood of experiencing positive events was above average. They believed they would never get a divorce and would likely live until old age.

This is called the Optimism Bias. We believe we are less likely to experience misfortune and more likely to experience success.

Having a sense of optimism can be beneficial, yes. But when it is unrealistic, it can hurt our joy and overall wellbeing.

For instance, in one study, students who were unrealistically optimistic about their performance on an exam displayed less happiness when they received a poor score. If they were originally optimistic about their performance, this decrease resulted in a loss of wellbeing and self-esteem.

We’re told to look at the world through rose-colored glasses and just think happy thoughts. But if we hold onto the idea that we’re entitled to a positive life, we’ll crash much harder when we discover we’re not.

It’s best to hold the events of our life with an open hand, to not assume it’ll end up perfectly happy, but rather assume we have an equal likelihood of both positive and negative events.

Not all shortcuts help

Our minds are taking shortcuts to preserve our mental energy and time. However, these biases are hurting our ability to experience greater joy.

The amazing news is, these biases don’t have to keep dragging you down a path that steals your joy. Sure, your mind might take these shortcuts still, but now you have the awareness to recognize when it’s happening. If awareness is the best medicine, then you can call these biases out when they happen, and stop them from taking hold of your mind.

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