Category Archives: Happiness

Why We Can’t Predict Future Happiness: the Hedonic Treadmill

Have you ever found yourself daydreaming about a day, perhaps not too far in the future, where you’ve finally gotten something you really want and just feel happy? Of course you have; this is a very common thing for people to do. They are sure that if they just lose the weight, get the job, or start dating the dreamboat that it will be happily ever after.

Predicting how your future self will react emotionally to an event is called affective forecasting. In general, people’s forecasts of future emotions don’t match well with their actual reactions when the event happens. They tend to think they’ll react more strongly and that the feelings will last longer than they actually do. People also forget that they won’t experience the event in a vacuum; their emotions will also be affected by all of the other things going on in their lives.

Let’s say someone wins the lottery. They’ve always said would solve all their problems; no more worrying about bills, being able to take a nice vacation, and finally being able to walk away from an unsatisfying job. At first, things really do feel great. But as time passes, their happiness begins to fade. Little by little, the person’s excitement simmers lower until eventually, their mood is back to about where it started. Being a lottery winner becomes the new normal, not a source of daily pleasure.

The Science Behind: Baseline Happiness

Psychologists now think that most people have an individual set point for happiness. They may experience highs and lows, but given enough time, they’ll return to their own average happiness baseline.

This return to a baseline happiness level is known as the hedonic treadmill. On a treadmill, no matter how hard people run, they remain in the same spot. Similarly, in the pursuit of happiness, people may achieve amazing things, but after some time, they end up roughlyjust as happy as they were when they started.

Does this mean that behavior change can’t make people happy? Not exactly. Behavior change is not likely to leave people in a state of lifelong ecstasy, no matter how badly they wanted the result. But it can help people feel more content by removing specific stressors from their lives. And, depending on what behaviors have changed, they may bring new, happiness-enhancing possibilities with them. Imagine the ex-smoker who can now breathe deeply enough to think about hiking in the mountains, or the savvy saver who can afford to think about a planned retirement.

When people expect behavior change to make them happy and it doesn’t, they may go on to downplay the importance of small changes in their overall well-being. They incorrectly assume that more is better, and seek bigger targets. Instead of focusing on realistic yet meaningful steps toward a goal, they pursue bigger changes instead.

Bigger changes, of course, are harder to achieve. And so people are more likely to fail. They may experience a rollercoaster of negative emotions as they fall short of their big goal. And there’s the opportunity cost of working on something grandiose at the expense of smaller tasks that add up to meaningful change. Worst of all, science tells us that those people who do reach their impressive goals won’t stay happy for long.

The people who manage the hedonic treadmill best are the ones who treat it either like a series of sprints (chasing smaller goals more quickly) or a marathon (chasing bigger goals at a steady pace). Trying to do both by sprinting a marathon usually ends badly.

Shonda Rhimes Joins The Authenticity-Is-Happiness Club

Shonda RhimesI recently talked a bit about the book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Let’s be honest: I became mildly obsessed with the book after reading it and discovering how astute and funny Ms. Rhimes is. Many of her insights align well with the psychology of happiness and health.  One theme she hits particularly strongly is authenticity, namely how being true to yourself can lead to better happiness and engagement with life. Continue reading Shonda Rhimes Joins The Authenticity-Is-Happiness Club

Saying Yes and Saying No: A Purpose-Guided Agenda

Saying YesIn further evidence that I’m a product of my era, I decided to read Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. For those of you downloading this blog post from your cave in the wilderness, Rhimes is the creator of some of network tv’s most popular shows, including Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.  It also turns out that she wrote a pretty good guide to personal happiness in Year of Yes, with strong themes of purpose and authenticity. Somehow, I was surprised at the depth and quality of her advice, despite having written a past blog post on how Rhimes endorses authenticity in Scandal. Continue reading Saying Yes and Saying No: A Purpose-Guided Agenda

When Food is More Than a Meal

WhenFoodIsMoreThanAMealAside from weight loss itself, which has an obvious implication for what one eats, there are lots of health conditions with some dietary component to their management. Some examples: People with high blood pressure need to be aware of sodium intake, some medications interact with food or drink, and folks with food allergies are on constant high alert. These sorts of changes can be very difficult for people to make, and it’s not just because they enjoy the taste of forbidden foods. Food can be much more than just a meal. Continue reading When Food is More Than a Meal

Being Both: The Psychology of Identity Integration

CASTLECertain identities are deeply meaningful for the time and the place in which we live. Being a woman in the 21st century United States carries expectations that were not shared by women in 17th century China and will not be by women in 24th century Argentina. And a woman in the 21st century United States may also be a scientist, police officer, or soldier; she might belong to any racial or ethnic background; she might belong to multiple different cultures; and so forth and so on. So what, you ask? Continue reading Being Both: The Psychology of Identity Integration

Some Things Keep Getting Better, But Our Mood Isn’t One of Them

AmyBucherPhdIf you remember the male makeover hit of the early 2000s, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, you’ve heard the song that says “All things just keep getting better.” While this is not generally true (three words for you: fish, tuberculosis, taxes), it actually does seem to have some merit in describing a whole bunch of stuff going on in the world right now. Among the dimensions that have been improving in the past few decades are: Continue reading Some Things Keep Getting Better, But Our Mood Isn’t One of Them

Procrastinating by “Pre-Crastinating”

ProcrastinatingIn college, I’d say I was a procrastinator. I’ve always worked well under a deadline, and what better way to incite that energizing pressure than waiting until shortly before an assignment is due to begin working on it?  Once I became a graduate student and then a professional, my workload became such that procrastination was no longer a viable option. The stakes were higher, and the tasks more complex. So, over time, I’ve shifted my work style to be more planful (although I still can crank out a mean last-minute job). Continue reading Procrastinating by “Pre-Crastinating”

Is Freedom the Pursuit of Happiness? The Boston Public Library Liberty Tree

amybucherphd.comI was wandering through the Boston Public Library‘s main branch at Copley Square (a truly enchanted building) when I stumbled across an interactive exhibit to accompany their current exhibit about the Revolutionary War. The exhibit is called The Liberty Tree, and is a human-sized framework covered in visitor-created paper leaves describing different definitions of liberty. The library explains: Continue reading Is Freedom the Pursuit of Happiness? The Boston Public Library Liberty Tree

I Gotta Be Me: When Authenticity is Hard

I Gotta Be Me- (1)Being yourself is the quickest path to happiness, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to do. Sometimes being true to yourself involves making hard decisions. You may have to choose between a job that pays well and a career that is more personally meaningful, or between doing something you hate with your friends or having a better time solo but knowing you’re missing out. Continue reading I Gotta Be Me: When Authenticity is Hard

Finding The Musical “One”: Art and Relationships

Finding The Musical -One-A couple of months ago, I wrote about how Amanda Palmer (singer and performance artist) characterized her art as a way of building relationships with audiences. She talks about art as a way to make oneself vulnerable and enable connections with other people. Her words resonated with me as a new-ish blogger who struggles with the balance between the personal and the professional in this public “performance” space. Building relationships is hard, and creating any sort of media for others to consume lays the soul a bit barer than we may be comfortable with. Continue reading Finding The Musical “One”: Art and Relationships