Sunél's Blog | The elephant in the room is not the one you think

Sunél Veldtman, | 08 October 2021

We like to think that we are rational beings. We like to think that we can control our emotions, and instincts so that we can make rational decisions, much like a rider can control a horse. But research shows that we don’t. We make instantaneous, unconscious, and often emotional decisions and then rationalise them. Jonathan Haidt, professor in psychology at New York University, uses a wonderful analogy of an elephant to describe our thinking process. In his analogy, the rider is on top of an elephant – a giant six-ton elephant of emotion. It is difficult to persuade the elephant where to go.

What the elephant represents is the mind’s automatic, involuntary processes. The elephant will compulsively convince us in the showroom to buy a more expensive car when the rider budgeted for a cheaper version. The elephant will let us know in milliseconds whether we are attracted to a person we meet. And it is very difficult to change what the elephant dictates. And to a degree, for good reason.

The elephant’s mission is to ensure our survival and success. It is designed to keep us safe and to encourage us to procreate. The elephant does not concern itself with our contentment or happiness. Haidt explains that one of the things that the elephant cares about is prestige. It always compares itself to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will also keep telling us that we are not successful enough – to keep striving - even shortly after we have reached a milestone or long after we have already achieved our goals.

And therein lies the trap for the rider.

If our contentment is determined by how we measure up relative to others, our own progress towards our own goals may not bring us more contentment. Research now shows that growth in wealth becomes futile to our happiness if that increase is not keeping up with the rest of our community or society; or if we compare ourselves to those above us on the wealth ladder. It’s why the successful CEO will be discontented because has not measured up to his billionaire friend’s achievement. It’s why social media is so bad for our wellbeing - because it shows us how poorly we compare to the rich and famous, and even our seemingly more successful friends. It’s why economic growth on its own doesn’t increase happiness if inequality has also increased substantially. It explains much of the current discontentment we see in a world that’s experienced great economic advancement – the gains have not been distributed evenly.

On a personal level, we should recognise the elephant in the room, the one we are riding, and its mission. Because if we don’t, if we allow ourselves to remain on autopilot, it is unlikely that we will ever find contentment. This means that we must learn how to steer our elephant in the direction of contentment and learn about what will bring contentment. As a start, for contentment, we must quit comparing ourselves to people who are higher than us on the wealth ladder. We must choose our own measures of success, not the elephant’s.