Category Archives: Happiness and Optimism

# 58 Look Forward to Growing Old, Live Longer

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Old Romanian Couple Smiling

 

There are good ways to grow old and bad ways to age.  What makes the difference?  In the August 2002  issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Yale university researchers Becca Levy and Martin Slade and others reported on the results of their study of people’s attitudes toward aging and how important this is to aging gracefully.  These researchers re-examined the data that was gathered on 660 people in the town of Oxford, Ohio, who were interviewed in 1975 when they were 50 years old.  They looked at five questions which constituted the individual’s attitude toward aging.  These were as follows:

‘Things keep getting worse as I get older.”   (no)

‘I have as much pep as I did last year.”  (yes)

“As you get older, you are less useful.”   (no)

‘I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.”  (yes)

“As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be.”  (yes)

Participants received a score from 0 to 5, based on agreement with the responses above.  Then they looked at the death rates of those with positive and negative attitudes toward aging.  The results were significant.  Those with higher scores (a more positive attitude toward aging) lived on average 7.6 years longer than those with negative attitudes.  The authors considered the possibility that perhaps it was the individual’s good health or poor health, or other factors, that predicted survival rates.  However, even when these were examined  separately, people’s attitudes toward aging were stronger predictive factors than male-female gender, loneliness, physical health, or household income.

The researchers then considered whether still another factor, called will to live, is what actually shaped people’s attitudes toward aging.  They measured this by looking at people’s answers, when they were 50, to the questions of whether they felt their lives were empty or full, whether they were hopeless or hopeful, and whether they saw themselves as worthless or worthy.  As expected, those who endorsed the items full, hopeful, and worthwhile, to describe their lives, were the same ones who were happier and living longer.

Consider this for comparison.  Weighing less, not smoking, and exercising is likely to add only 1 to 3 years to your life, while having a positive outlook is likely to add 7.6 years.  If you’re having trouble losing weight and don’t go the gym as often as you should, do a kindness for someone today instead.  It may do you as much good or more insofar as extending your life.

Watch another movie about people aging.  What is their attitude about aging?  Are the characters’ lives empty or full?  worthless or worthy?  hopeless or hopeful?

Reference

Levy, B., Slade, M., Kunkel, S., & Kasl, S.  2002.  Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2), 261-270.

Szegedy-Maszak, M.  Aug. 5, 2002.  “Good Old Thoughts.”  U.S. News & World Report, p. 47.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo:  <a href=”http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-old-couple-portrait-image16398004#res6062508″>Photo Old couple portrait</a> – © Blanaru | Dreamstime.com

 

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# 51 Do What You Would Do If You Were Not Depressed

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Many psychotherapy clients come with a mistaken agenda. Like the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow, they go to see the Wizard in the Emerald City looking for magical gifts–gifts that will give them what they lack.  It goes something like this:

“I am depressed.  When the therapist takes my depression away, I will do things that make me happy, I will go for a walk.  I will wave at my neighbor and  smile.  Oh, if only I didn’t have this depression holding me back.”

The sequence is all wrong.  Real changes in life, real psychotherapy,  goes like this:

“You are depressed,  that’s true.  If you would act as if you’re not depressed, and walk down that sidewalk and smile to your neighbor, you will find yourself becoming less depressed.”  You act first, then the change in your emotional state will follow.

Strange as it may sound, studies show that when depressed people forced themselves to smile, even by biting on a pencil, they felt happier emotionally.  Somehow the movement of the muscles around the mouth triggered an internal sensation of well-being.  In fact a major study of treatment for depression found that when depressed people simply do all the things that non-depressed people do–socialize with others, exercise, pursue enjoyable interests such as art and music, perform kind acts for others–their depression dissipates.  This form of treatment, if it can be called treatment, is more effective than antidepressant medication.

  1. Consider how, when you have felt depressed, you waited for something to happen so you could feel happy. How could you instead take charge of your low mood and act happier? Remember, you cannot fix the feelings first, hoping the behavior will follow. You engage in the behavior first, and the feelings will follow.

 

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# 49 Consider the Best As Well As the Worst Possible Outcomes

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The pessimist lives in a state of “what if…?” She considers all manner of possible negative outcomes of things, from the mildly negative, which has a statistically reasonable chance of occurring, to the moderately negative, to the catastrophic outcome which is statistically almost impossible. She then dwells on the catastrophic outcome, and ruminates over how to prepare for it, until visions of catastrophe fill her emotional space. She believes that it is better to assume the worst, because ,”if it happens, I will bee prepared for it, and if it doesn’t happen, then I will be pleasantly surprised.”  While she is dwelling on the catastrophic, life moves inexorably past her unnoticed, and good outcomes, when they occur, are treated as minor events which barely avoided disaster.  .

The optimist considers both positive and negative possibilities. He considers the possibility of a negative outcome, but only enough to be prepared for it. He also considers the possibility of a positive outcome, considering it enough to prepare for it as well. He stays anchored enough in the present to take joy from it, and dwells on the positive possibilities ahead enough to enhance the present even more.

Here are some examples:

(1)  I’ve got a business trip coming up.  Gee, I dread standing in lines at airports, going through security.  Then again, I always enjoy the view of the clouds and the ground below, passing over water.  On one of my last flights, I met an interesting woman who had been travelling in Egypt.  Maybe I’ll meet someone interesting again.

(2)  Tonight I’m meeting someone for coffee whom I met online.  I dread these dates.  I feel so awkward.  It could be a disaster.  Then again, I went on one not long ago, and the guy told some funny stories about his worst dates.  They  cracked me up.   We might have some fun for a while.  Who knows how it might turn out.

Consider the last time you were acutely anxious. What were the negative outcomes you were dwelling on? How did it affect you?

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What future events are you anxious about?  When do you typically assume that the worse will happen?

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Now think again about that event coming up.  Write down the positive outcomes which are also possible?
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When you find yourself catastrophizing, shift away from considering only negative outcomes, shift into considering positive outcomes. You are not seeking to be unrealistic, only balanced in your thinking.

 

 

 

# 48 Take Ownership of Your Successes

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????blue-dotWhen positive outcomes occur, we have characteristic ways in which we view them.  The optimist views his or her good result as well- deserved, under their control.  The pessimist views the good result as a fluke, a fleeting bit of luck.  Here’s an example:  The human resources manager makes a well received presentation to management.

Optimist:  “Wow, I really was in top form today.  (internal)  All my creative juices were flowing. (internal, pervasive)   I’m glad I prepared.  Everything just came together.  I guess I have a knack for this.  (pervasive and long-lasting).

Pessimist:  “Whew!.  I’m glad I got through that.  I don’t know why they liked it.  I stumbled a few times.  I guess I was lucky that the guy before me warmed them up with a few good jokes (external, temporary, limited).  Maybe they felt sorry for me because they could see I was nervous.  Or maybe they were just glad it was such a short presentation (external, temporary, limited).

Consider a success you’ve had. Did you brush it away as a fluke? a temporary blip on the screen of life? a stroke of luck? Write about it.

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Now write about it as being due to factors that are internal, pervasive, and long-lasting. Really take ownership of it.

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References

Peterson, C., & Seligman.  1984.  Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression;  Theory and evidence.  Psychological Review, 91, 347-374.  Also:  Seligman, M.  1991.  Learned Optimism.  New York:  Knopf.

 

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# 47 Change Your View of Negative Events

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In the 1980’s Martin Seligman developed the theory that depression is associated with a style of thinking which he called pessimism and that people who reported greater satisfaction with their lives were characterized by an optimistic outlook on themselves, their day-to-day experiences, and their lives.

Through his research, and that of others, he discovered that people who are prone to anxiety, worry, and unhappiness tend to explain bad events as being due to factors which are internal, pervasive, and long-lasting.  They tend to explain good events as being due to factors that are outside of their control–external, limited in scope, and temporary.  People with a broad sense of well being do just the opposite.  They ascribe good events as due to causes that are within their control, to their personality traits, their talents, and their actions.  They see these factors as long lasting and applicable in a wide variety of settings.  Happy people tend to view bad events as due to temporary, situational factors, limited to only that one situation.

Seligman went on to explore these thinking styles and found that optimistic thinking is characteristic of salesmen who are high performers, successful athletes, and women who are most likely to survive breast cancer.  It is even characteristic of children who successfully weather bad events in childhood, such as their parents’ divorce.

Here is an example:  A person has been dieting and losing a few pounds a week for several months.  He/she has a week where they gain two pounds instead.

The pessimistic person:

“I can’t lose weight. (internal).   I’ll never lose weight.  I’ll always be overweight.  (pervasive, long-lasting).   It’s hopeless. (long-lasting).   I fail every time. (internal, long-lasting)  ”

The optimistic person:

“I’ll have to check my meal plans.  I guess there were more calories in some of my meals than I realized.  (external, limited).  I’m sure that once I get my calories in line, and do a little more exercise, I’ll lose weight again (external, limited, temporary).

Consider a problem which you face often and which leaves you feeling discouraged. Write down your most common explanation for it. This exercise is especially useful when encountering experiences with people who are angry, critical, rejecting, or indifferent.

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Is your explanation internal, pervasive, and long-lasting?

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References

Peterson, C., & Seligman.  1984.  Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression;  Theory and evidence.  Psychological Review, 91, 347-374.  Also:  Seligman, M.  1991.  Learned Optimism.  New York:  Knopf.

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# 37 Consider The Real Sources of Happiness

blue-dotdreamstime_xs_25061966The set range we are born with is a powerful predictor of happiness.  How-ever, within that set range there is much fluctuation from lows to highs.  That fluctuation is due to what we put in our lives that is associated with happiness.  Researchers in the field of happiness are narrowing in on what makes us experience life at the upper end of that range.  These things are:

*    Important relationships.  No surprise here.  People who have people are the luckiest people in the world.  The married are happier than the unmarried.  Old people who have a companion live longer than those who don’t.  The happiest people are the most gregarious.

Black family at church

*    Flow.  Flow is a term coined by researcher Csikszentmihalyi to describe an experience that people have when they are engaged in work or other activities that are highly enjoyable.  This occurs when the activity provides a close match between the demands made on us and our highest level of skill and ability.  In other words, the demands are not beyond our capabilities nor unstimulating and redundant, but call upon us to use our abilities in an optimal way.  During experiences of flow, we feel completely focused, self consciousness disappears, and we lose track of time.  We don’t necessarily feel “happy” at that time, but feel very alert, very motivated, very alive.  Afterward, we describe that state as a happy experience.

*    Commitment to something larger than ourselves.  For many, this is an  involvement in a religious faith, but it doesn’t have to be.  For others, it may be raising their children, building a public monument, or doing volunteer work.  It might be caring for a sick relative or cleaning up the environment.  The important factor is that it has no immediate benefit to self.

*   A sense of control.  This is a theme that emerges from hundreds of studies in the fields of psychology.  People with low levels of control over what happens to them have much higher rates of unhappiness, stress, frustration, and depression.  This has been shown to be true for adults, employees, children of divorce, even infants, monkeys, and dogs in the laboratory setting.

*  Consider the times in your life when you have been the happiest, either for a few weeks or months, or even a phase of life when you were the happiest for several years.  Which of these key ingredients were present in your life?

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*  Which key factors do you most need in your life now?  What would you have to do to develop them?

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# 36 Calculate Your Set Point For Happiness

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GaugeAbraham Lincoln said, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  One hundred and fifty years later, researchers have found that there is much wisdom in Lincoln’s observation.    Just as people appear to have a set point with their weight, and thus tend to be slender or tend to be plump, people tend toward the gloomy, negativistic side of life or they tend toward a lighthearted, optimistic outlook.  Most people have a set point that is somewhere around the middle or just above it most of the time, regardless of life circumstances.  Research also suggests that this set point is genetically encoded in us when we are born.

Consider the happiness index to be a scale from 1 at the bottom to 10 at the top, and 5 being the middle of the scale.  Toward the bottom of the scale people feel these emotions most of the time:  angry, discouraged, helpless, frustrated, bored, out of control, lonely, distrusting, pessimistic, unimportant, and cynical.  At the top of the scale people feel this way more than half the time:  encouraged, hopeful, thankful, challenged, in control, optimistic, cheerful, important, trusting, and generous.

What is your lifetime set range for happiness?  (Give a 5 point range)

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Describe a time in your life when you were at the low point of this range?

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Describe a time in your life when you were at the upper end of this range?

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What was the fundamental difference in these two periods in your life?

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Where are you in your set range right now?  (within a three point range of your five point set range)

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What might you do more of in order to move your set point one point higher and more in line with your life at the time when your set point was at its highest?

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References

Barton, W. E.  1976.  Abraham Lincoln and his books:  With selections from the writings of Lincoln and a bibliography of books in print relating to Abraham Lincoln.  Folcroft, PA:  Folcroft Library Editions.   Braungart, J. M.,  Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., & Fuller, D.  1992.  Genetic influence on tester-rated infant temperament as assessed by Bayley’s Infant Behavior Record:  Nonadoptive and adoptive siblings and twins.  In:  Developmental Psychology, 28, 40-47.   Costa, P. T., McCrae, R. R., & Zonderman, A. B.  1987.  Environmental and dispositional influences on well being:  Longitudinal follow-up of an American national sample. In:  British Journal of Psychology, 78, 299-306.  Headey, B., & Wearing, A.  1989.   Personality, life events, and subjective well http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/being:  Toward a dynamic equilibrium model.  In:  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 731-739.  Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A.  1996.  Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon.  In:  Psychological Science, 7, 186-189.   Tellegen, A., Lykken, D. T., Bouchard, T. J., Wilcox, K. J., Segal, N. L., & Rich, S.  1988.  Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together.  In:  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1031-1039.

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# 35 Consider What Is Not a Source of Happiness

dreamstime_xs_20937845blue-dotMost of us have a pretty good feel for what happiness is–a sense of positive emotion, of well being, of satisfaction with life.  However, as a culture we have many misguided notions of what “causes” happiness.  We seem to think that happiness is what happens to you if you have good things happening to you, a comfortable life, and freedom from stress and work.

Researchers have been zeroing in on the true nature of this thing called happiness.

We have learned that it is not associated with:

*     Immediate gratification through food, sex, pornography, drugs, alcohol, shopping, other similar experiences.  Though these experiences bring about a brief euphoric state, they are short lived, and leave no lasting effects.  In fact, once the experience is over, we may feel a sense of flatness, emptiness, and a craving for another short burst of euphoria.

*    Money, fame.  Did you know that a study of lottery winners found that they  were happier for up to a year after they won the lottery, then were about as happy as they were before winning the lottery?  Studies of the super-wealthy find them to be no more happy than people of modest means, provided their basic needs are met.

*   Age.  Youth does not bestow happiness, nor does old age consign one to misery.  People of all age groups are about equally happy, except that  older people are slightly happier than the young.

*   Education.  Though educational attainment may enable a person to achieve  more career success, more social status, and more wealth in some cases, it does not appear to be associated with happiness.  A famous study of  Harvard men found them to be no more happy in later life than a group of inner city men.

*    Exercise, health.  Surprisingly health and fitness do not appear to be associated with happiness unless one has two major illnesses.  Even one major illness does not appear to affect most people’s basic level of happiness.  Studies of paraplegics find them to be no more unhappy than those who can walk.  After about the first year of rehabilitation and recovery, paraplegics return to pre-trauma levels of happiness.

*    Good looks.  People who are attractive have been found to be no more happy than people with average attractiveness ratings.

*    The culture we live in.  People in affluent cultures such as the U.S. and Sweden are not happier as a group than people who live in, say, Mexico.  As long as a society can meet the basic needs of the people for food and shelter and as long it is a democracy, people are about equally happy in richer and poorer societies.

Consider how you have pursued some goal in your life with the expectation that as soon as you obtained it you would be happy, only to find that it was short lived and you did not arrive at a plateau in which your overall happiness was any higher than before.

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Which of these goals are you still pursuing?  Has it brought you happiness?  What would you have to do to change this pattern?

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References

 ABC News 20/20 with John Stossel.  July 3, 2002.  “The Secrets of Happiness.”   ABC News 20/20 with John Stossel.  “The Mystery of Happiness.”  Jan. 18, 2009.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcT7wJgmYGE   Diener, Ed.  2000.  Subjective Well Being:  The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index.  The American Psychologist, 55, (1), 34-43.   Meyer, David.  2002.  The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People.  The American Psychologist, 55, (1), 56-67.  Seligman, Martin.  May, 2002.  Plenary Address.  Georgia Psychological Assn.  Savannah, Georgia.   Seligman, M. 2000.   Positive Psychology:  An Introduction.  The American Psychologist, 55, (1), 5-14.

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#23 Imagine Your Best Self

yellow-dot DSC_0187Is it possible to cultivate optimism?  Many people have spent a lifetime cultivating pessimism.  For those who are perpetually in a state of mild depression, the future is a land of emptiness, heartache, and disappoint-ment.  For the anxious the future is a landmine of disasters, crises, and catastro-phes waiting to happen.  They focus on job loss, rejection, failure, illness, and lack of money.  Optimistic people are aware of the possibilities of these things, but are able to also focus on future possible events.

Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, set about to see if you could train people to be optimistic and, if so, what would be the effect on their mood.  In an experiment conducted in 2001, she had participants come to her lab and spend twenty minutes writing about their “best possible future selves.”  They wrote about a future in which their goals were realized—they found the mate they were looking for, they were successful in some endeavor in life, they were financially secure, etc.  She found that subjects who did this for several days rated themselves as being in a more positive mood than those who wrote about mundane topics.  They still reported themselves to be happier several weeks later and even reported better health several months later.

This experiment was repeated by Kennon Sheldon and Sonia Lyubomirsky in 2006 using college students, except that they asked the students to complete the writing exercise just once in their lab, then continue it over the course of four weeks.  They, too, found very positive outcomes for students who did this writing exercise several times.

Is this the same as “visualizing” what you want in hopes that your wishes will be fulfilled?  Not at all.  Lyubomirsky (2007) points out that in this exercise participants focused on their future goals.  In doing so, especially by writing them out repeatedly, it seemed to get them to focus on these goals on a regular basis and link what they did today with a goal they hoped to reach in the future.  It also seemed to help them deepen a sense of identity, of who they were and where they were going in life.

Imagine your Best Possible Self 5 years from now.  List three goals you hope to attain:

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Imagine your Best Possible Self 1 year from today.  List three goals you hope to attain:

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Imagine your Best Possible Self 1 month from today.  List three goals you hope to attain:

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Do this exercise again in a week.  Copy it and post it where you might see it often—on your refrigerator, by your computer.

References

King, L. A.  2001.  The health benefits of writing about life goals.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-806.

Lyubomirsky, S.  2007.  The How of Happiness.  Penguin. pp. 103-106.

Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. 2006.  How to increase and sustain positive emotion:  The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves.  The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1 (2), 73-82.

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# 18 Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill

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English: KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea— Airmen ...

English: KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea— Airmen from the 8th Fighter Wing use cardio equipment at the fitness center. Cardiovascular exercise is one way to stay fit and maintain weight according to health and physical fitness experts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their now classic paper on the psychology of happiness, researchers Brickman and Campbell suggested that all people labor on a “hedonic tread-mill.”  As they obtain more possessions and achieve higher goals, their expectations also rise.  Soon they habituate to their new level of affluence or success, and it no longer makes them happy.  Likewise, people may be terribly unhappy when they first encounter loss and misfortune, but they soon adapt to those as well, and they no longer make them unhappy.  Therefore, according to Brickman and Campbell, people are destined to be “neutral” on the happiness scale, no matter what happens.

Interesting theory, but it was only partially correct.  Studies show conclusively that people do adapt to most circumstances pretty quickly.  For example, people adapt within a few months to:  job promotions, job loss, a diagnosis of cancer, being told the cancer is in remission, imprisonment, major illness, physical impairment, marriage and widowhood, and a sudden increase in affluence.  However, they don’t return to a point of “neutrality,” they return to the set point which they have maintained pretty consistently throughout their lives.

For example, if you ask people to rate how happy they are on a scale from 1 to 10, with one being the bottom, and 10 being the top, most people, most of the time, rate themselves a 5.5.  We think this is because most people feel pretty good when nothing really bad is happening.  However, there are people whose set point is usually around 7, and then there are those whose set point may be around 4.

What makes the difference in this set point?  The answer to this question is complex, but certainly genes play a large part.  There seems to be a predisposition, probably inherited, to be unhappy.  People with this temperament tend to react with more intense emotion to negative events and less intensely to positive events.  Small negative events are exaggerated and positive events are overlooked.

Along with this is a tendency to set continually higher expectations for one’s happiness.  For example, the mother who says, “If only we had a nicer home, I’d be happy,” gets the nicer home and declares, “If only my husband wouldn’t work so much, I’d be happy.”  When he gets some time off, she laments, “Now, if only my son got into a good college, I’d be happy…”  People with a lower set point for happiness seem to be continually looking over the next hill for some external circumstance which may bring them the elusive state of happiness.

For example, did you ever wish for a higher level of success in your work, only to obtain it and find it carried with it greater demands, longer hours, more respon-sibility, more stress and more pressure?  As another example, many people in unre-warding marriages think “If only I could get a divorce all my problems would be solved,” yet find that after the divorce, they are faced with a new set of equally challenging problems such as financial downsizing, single parenting, child support payments to make, loneliness, being away from the children for days or weeks at a time, conflicts over visitation with the children, the adjustment to remarriage, step parenting, etc.

On the other hand, most people’s lives have had times when they had relatively little externally, yet were reasonably happy.  College students live in poverty, yet most people recall college life as an enjoyable time.  Middle aged couples often look back on their first few years of marriage, when they had very little money, as a happy time.  Many people who grew up poor say they were happy because everyone else around them was poor as well, so they felt they were not lacking anything.  The key ingredient here seems to be expectations again.  They had low expectations, and so they were content.

  • Are you on a “hedonic treadmill?”  When in your life have you said to yourself, “If only I had…”  or “If only I could…”  only to obtain that goal and still be no happier months later?  List two examples:
  • List a time in your life when you had “less” of something yet were satisfied.  What was different about that time?  List two examples:
  • What have you learned from this exercise?  How can you apply this  to your life today?

References

Brickman, P. & Campbell, D. T.  Hedonic relativism and planning the good society.  In M. H. Appley (Ed.). 1971. Adaptation-level-theory (pp. 287-305).  New York:  Academic Press.

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