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What We Don’t Have Can Teach Us To Be Happier

We are actually happier than we think we are

Would you like to feel happier?

Shortly before his untimely death, University of Chicago professor Hillel Einhorn weighed in on this issue in a rare interview. His advice: focus less on what you wish for and more on what he referred to as “non-occurrences:” the things you haven’t experienced.

Einhorn’s argument is that feelings of happiness ultimately boil down to one’s “haves” and “wants.” In our minds, we tend to categorize these into three groups.

The first category consists of the things we have that we want to have. A loving family, a good job, a nice house, and most of our possessions fall into this group. These are around us all the time, they are easy to remember and experience. We feel grateful to have them. They make us happy.

The second category includes the things we have but don’t want. These can be diseases, extra weight, an undesired job, financial difficulties, and some other personal attributes we could do without. Their presence bothers us and makes us miserable.

The third category includes the things we would like to have but don’t. More money, better health, a bigger house, a luxurious car would be in this group. Like the items in the previous category, thinking about these also comes easily and makes us unhappy.

Einhorn suggested that we spend so much time and energy pondering the content of these three categories that we fail to consider the fourth yet crucial category of "non-occurrences:” Things we don’t want and don’t have. Everything that we have not experienced and we really wouldn’t wish to experience.

Consider, for example, the diseases and the physical and psychological challenges we may be fortunate enough not to live with. Or the pains we don’t feel, the problems we don’t need to solve, and the misfortunes we may have the immense luck not to have suffered. The list can go on and on and on…

This fourth category has three important features. First, like the first category, thinking about it would make us happy. Second, it is arguably much larger than the previous three combined. It’s almost infinite for most citizens in a developed country. And third, unlike the other categories, it does not come easily to mind because it does not depend on what we have experienced. It’s about what we haven’t!

Unhappy due to experience

Our personal experience drives much of what we feel and learn. It’s considered a great teacher. In this case, however, it ends up narrowing our perspective and reducing our happiness by making it hard for us to think about these horrible, yet possible non-occurrences in our lives.

Thus by failing to consider the fourth category, people typically judge themselves to be less happy than they actually are. To assess our happiness, we should get better at “counting our blessings” in terms of not only what we have, but what we don’t have as well.

An easy hack to form this habit could be to start making a list of things that belong to the fourth category. Everyone’s list will be different. Yet this exercise would help make these non-occurrences more accessible to one’s experience and intuition.

To the extent that happiness is driven by the correlation between “wants” and “haves,” an accurate assessment needs to consider all four cells of the 2x2 table that Einhorn drew to help himself remember the fourth category.

Looking and thinking about this figure should already make you feel happier than you are at this very moment.

Soyer & Hogarth

Einhorn's 2x2

Source: Soyer & Hogarth
More from Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.
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