I recently read a book by Daniel Gilbert, a researcher at Harvard, called Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel and Timothy Wilson have done research on a phenomena called affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is, simply put, the habit of forecasting either more positive or negative outcomes from a future event. For example, we tell ourselves how happy we will be if we get that house/car/boat/spouse. Or alternatively we tell ourselves how unhappy we will be if X situation happens. In reality, the item we thought would bring us tons of happiness rarely meets the anticipated level, and the event we dreaded rarely is as bad as we thought it would be.
One reason for this is due to a human trait called hedonic adaptation, or the tendency for humans to become used to whatever situation they are in. Good or bad, we adapt quickly to new situations, events, or contexts, barring culture shock when moving to another country, and even then that lasts on average a year and then we adapt to that as well. On one hand, this allows us to surpass and overcome difficult events or changes more easily. But, it also means that the object/thing/item/event we thought would make us so happy does not, because in the end we become accustomed to it and take it for granted, and we will go back to our previous baseline of happiness. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses that in this video.
Further, research has shown that those who actively pursue happiness as a sole objective in life often end up being much unhappier than those who instead prioritize happy moments and long-term goals into their life. In this study, Catalino, Algoe and Fredrickson (2014) define prioritizing positivity as "...people who pursue happiness by putting themselves in situations in which they are likely to experience happiness..." (pg 1156). This is different than making the sole pursuit of happiness a prime objective of life. We have to be sad sometimes, and feelings of anxiety, fear, and sadness can often be important warning flags about things we need to notice or change. It is impossible to pursue being happy all the time, and we should not, as we will fail and then feel even unhappier. Sadness is also a part of being human. The key is balance. Prioritizing positivity in our lives offers a method of balance.
Research also shows (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010) that making more and more money does not necessarily lead to a happier person, though society is rife with the myth that more money means more happiness, and advertising companies bank their entire success on making you feel inadequate unless you buy that new product. Research further shows (Carter & Gilovich, 2010) that those who spend money on experiences over material objects experience a longer enduring happiness then the momentary joy a new object brings. Meaning, buying new running shoes will not in of itself bring happiness. It is the exercising 3 days a week that brings more happiness through better health, losing weight, increased energy, better sleep, and feeling more fit. All those experiences are what will make one feel happier, not the new shoes. The experience is the key factor to more happiness. You will remember that trip to the Great Wall of China forever, but you will lose interest in those new running shoes in about 2 days. So spend your money on experiences, not things.
Coupled together, this all means that those who integrate positive moments and experiences into their days with friends and families are far more likely to experience enduring levels of happiness over the long term than those who pursue happiness through the purchase of material objects and immediate gratification.
How can you prioritize positivity?
Plan your day in a way that makes time for the experiences that bring you positive feelings, and use money to buy experiences, not things.
Here are a few ideas:
- Have lunch with a friend
- Bring a treat to your team at work
- Give a gift to someone
- Go for a walk with a spouse in a favorite location
- Make a nice dinner for someone
- Partake in a hobby that brings you happiness (playing the piano, drawing, writing, etc)
- Take someone you care about out to a nice dinner
- Plan your dream trip from your Bucket List
The end point of this entire article: Buy and pursue experiences and hobbies with love ones, not material things.
Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and
experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1),
146-159. doi:10.1037/a0017145 http://cornellpsych.org/people/travis/materials/Carter-Gilovich-Relative%20Relativity-JPSP-2010.pdf
Catalino, L. I., Algoe, S. B., and Fredrickson, B. L. (2014). Prioritizing Positivity: An Effective Approach to Pursuing Happiness? Emotion, 14(6), 1155-1161. doi:10.1037/a0038029 http://www.unc.edu/peplab/publications/Catalino_Algoe_Fredrickson_2014.pdf
Gilbert, D. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. Vintage Books, NY:NY.
Kahneman, D. & Deaton, D. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489–16493. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011492107 http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.full
**Photo by @Doug8888, used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.