Are You Living Up to Your Full Potential?

Adaptive preferences can increase life satisfaction.

Posted Nov 10, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you are like most people, you likely have had childhood dreams that didn't work out. Perhaps you dreamed of becoming a criminal defense lawyer, a neurosurgeon, a marine biologist, a veterinarian, or a mother of three. Now you find yourself in a completely different line of work or living situation. You may be entirely satisfied with what life brought you. Or you may not.

Many people are not very satisfied with their lives. They cannot fulfill their dreams. You may not have had the money to go to college or complete a post-college professional degree. You may not have had the opportunity to meet the people it would take to fulfill your dreams. If this seems like a good description of you and your life, and you experience low life satisfaction, perhaps you haven't considered altering your preferences so they fit your environment.

Adapting your preferences to your environment means that you take on the responsibility of finding more realistic job options or living situations—options or situations that are more suitable, given your environmental limitations. For example, if you cannot afford becoming a neurosurgeon, perhaps you can afford a degree as a radiology technician. This may allow you to work in a hospital with a medical team, thus helping you find satisfaction in your job.

Greater life satisfaction from adaptive preferences is backed up by research. When you are actually making progress toward your goals, you will feel a greater sense of satisfaction. Say you cannot afford the education that will allow you to work as a neurosurgeon but that you can afford the education that will allow you to work in a hospital as a radiology technician. If your are capable of altering your preference for becoming a neurosurgeon, then your education may now have your work toward what is now your true calling. This new satisfaction of life goals will add to your overall life satisfaction.

Or to take another example: suppose you have always dreamed of becoming a mother of three but that you never ended up in a situation that would allow you to become a mother of three. Perhaps you never met a potential future father or mother for your children. Perhaps adoption and IVF are too expensive. In these circumstances, you are likely to feel less than fully happy. But let's say that you alter your preferences to fit your circumstances. Let's say that you can alter your preference to be one where you take care of other people's children during the day or at night or teach children in an educational setting. You can then satisfy your life goals without being overly influenced by your circumstances. 

But how do you go about altering your preferences? Preferences are special types of desires: desires for doing one thing rather than another. It may be easy for strong-willed people not to act on their desires but it can be exceeding difficult to change your desires. If you really desire to eat the cookie in front of you, you can make yourself not eat it, but it is not as simple to make your desire go away.

It is potentially harder to alter a desire than it is to alter a belief, and the latter is hard enough. One of the most effective methods for altering preferences is to associate negative thoughts with your current unwanted desires and positive thoughts with the desires you hope to acquire. If your dream is to become a neurosurgeon but this just isn't feasible, you can think of the negative consequences of being a neurosurgeon: long work hours, work-related stress, people dying in your hands, the risk of getting sued by patients when things go wrong. If the desire you hope to acquire is that of becoming a radiologist technician, you can think of the positive consequences of being in this line of work. You may work fewer hours, giving you more time to pursue a life outside of work and take up new hobbies, you are unlikely to get sued when things go wrong, and so on.

Likewise, if your current desire is to have three children of your own but this isn't feasible, you can think of what having three children means in terms of what you can do with your life. Being around children can be wonderful but sometimes it is very hard and very enjoyable work. Some children are colicky and have behavioral and learning disabilities. If you have children of your own, you are forced to be "on" 24/7 (in typical cases). If you want to acquire a desire to work with children, think of the positive features of this lifestyle. If you are working with children but not parenting them, then you are not usually required to be "on" around the clock, yet you nonetheless still have the opportunity to impact the children you work with in positive ways that potentially can affect them for life. 

Eventually the association of negative thoughts with your current desire and positive thoughts with your desired desire can change your brain connections, and you may actually form realistic desires that can add to your life satisfaction.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.

Penguin, used with permission
Source: Penguin, used with permission