Happiness: When Thinking Fast Steers Us Wrong

I read a lot of books last year— among them The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis, which led me to Thinking Fast and Slow, by the behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman proposes that the “fast” system of thinking, or system 1, is the efficient and rapid way of processing information and taking action— it’s a heuristic-reliant process and always looks for the shortest path to an answer. It’s helpful, unless it isn’t. System 1 makes mistakes— and one of them is answering the wrong question. Politicians are aces at this one— answer the question you have the ready answer for, and hope the questioner doesn’t notice. And in the brain, often, it doesn’t.
What does this have to do with happiness or goal-setting?

We might ask ourselves “what do I want?”. There are lots of ways to answer that question, and the answer we’re after is sometimes complicated. It might be scary to admit, it might freak us out that there’s no clear way to achieve it, it might look like an insurmountable amount of work to get there, we might think it’s silly. We might be subconsiously blocking the real question for these reasons. Or we might not have really figured out how to listen to ourselves. So when we ask ourselves what we want, sometimes we get a system-one sleight-of-hand. What would make me comfortable right now? What do others expect of me? What would be easiest? What do I already know how to do? What would impress people? And system 1 will answer that question for us before we realize that it’s not really what we wanted to know.

Where does that leave us? I believe that self-reflection is a necessarily slow process. That’s not to say that we can’t have bursts of insight that hit like lightnening and change everything, but those aren’t enough on their own. We hear a lot about goal setting this time of year, and there’s a booming business for planners, self-help books, journals, programs, and “goal getter” t-shirts. All of this is fine, but none of it is going to help us unless we can take dedicated time thinking slow about what we want.

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