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.

Case Study: Patagonia Makes Questions Easy To Answer

A major challenge with designing health questionnaires is making sure that questions are both clinically meaningful and are easy for users to answer. One example has to do with hip-to-waist ratio, which can be an important indicator of heart health. I’ve seen health risk assessments ask people their hip and waist measurements, but how many people know those measurements without checking? And how many people have a tape measure close at hand to take the measurement? Even using your clothing size as a proxy is likely to be inaccurate since so many brands use vanity sizing or are inconsistent with other brands (I learned in a recent closet clean-out that I have every size from XS to XL in my closet, and they fit me). Continue reading Case Study: Patagonia Makes Questions Easy To Answer

When You Don’t Speak the Language, Literally: My Experience with the Japanese Health Care System and Radical Empathy

A common thing in my world of behavior change and design is a focus on building empathy by talking to people, sharing their perspectives, and living in their worlds. We talk about not designing for but rather with people, and empathy is required to do that. The truth is that even our best tools don’t really let us inhabit others’ lives. We can gain an understanding and emotional connection, but it’s not quite the real thing of experiencing what they experience. Continue reading When You Don’t Speak the Language, Literally: My Experience with the Japanese Health Care System and Radical Empathy

Designing for Financial Behavior: FxD 2018 Panel Recap

It’s easy for financial experts to say what people should do to achieve financial well-being. We can rattle off rules of thumb like: contribute enough to your 401k to achieve the full employer match; set aside enough savings to cover three months of expenses in an emergency; and leverage health savings accounts and other tools to offset the costs of care. These tips can work, but they ignore the reality that many people can’t or won’t follow them. In our panel on Designing for Financial Behavior at the 2018 Financial Experience Design (FxD) conference, we discussed how we can design tools to help improve people’s financial well-being while balancing what people should do with what they can and will do.

Read more on Medium.com.

Behavior Change Reading List

It’s been a while since I’ve updated anything here, but for good reasons: I am very busy! And with projects and problems that keep my brain occupied, to boot. But, in the interest of not being totally under the radar, I thought I could put my behavior change reading list online here. Often after I talk about behavior change principles, people ask where they can learn more. So I pulled together this list that mixes academic articles with high-quality pop psychology pieces as a starting point for the curious. Enjoy, and please suggest any additions! Continue reading Behavior Change Reading List

Do We Need Persuasion for Behavior Change?

Do We Need Persuasion for Behavior Change?Last month I presented at the World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF) Fuller Symposium, focused on behavior change for conservation. Several of the speakers from both the psychology and sustainability areas of expertise brought up a point I hadn’t clearly crystalized in my own head, but that I’ve reflected on a lot since the event. It’s pretty simple. Continue reading Do We Need Persuasion for Behavior Change?

Jumping the Technology Literacy Hurdle

Information is no good unless people can access and use it. Not knowing how to use technology keeps people from useful health information. A lack of “technology literacy” can make it hard for people to find and follow reputable health advice online, use and make sense of connected devices, and even interact with their providers when there are tech systems involved. How can we address tech literacy to make these health resources truly available to people? Continue reading Jumping the Technology Literacy Hurdle

Design Tactics to Foster Trust, Part 2: Legalese!

Design Tactics to Foster Trust: LegaleseWant your users to trust your product? It’s not just about the “fun” stuff like giving your product a personality, showing value quickly, and letting people feel a sense of control. It’s also about the “boring” stuff. What’s your privacy policy? How will you handle your users’ data? How will you write the  digital meta-content that explains all of that to users? This stuff matters a lot.

To put the point first: You need to handle users’ data sensitively, and tell them so in language they’ll understand.  Continue reading Design Tactics to Foster Trust, Part 2: Legalese!

Design Tactics to Foster Trust

How do you build technology that people trust?

The world gives us so many examples why we shouldn’t trust technology. Many Americans recently had their personal financial data put at risk by Equifax. It’s looking increasingly likely that Facebook deliberately shaped people’s information exposure in ways that influenced a presidential election. And there are reports that hackers can hijack connected home devices with high frequency voice commands not detectable by human ears. Yet, we persist in creating digital solutions for health, finance, and other incredibly personal topics and ask people to trust them–to trust us. Continue reading Design Tactics to Foster Trust

Behavior Change Truth: Action Is Harder Than Inaction

One category of behavioral economics judo is flipping from opt-in to opt-out.  More people enroll in 401ks when they have to uncheck the box to join, as opposed to checking it. And more people will pay their credit cards in full if the default is to do so, rather than to go on a payment plan. The real magic underlying the opt-out, though, is simple: Action is harder than inaction. Make the desired behavior passive, and it’s more likely to happen. Continue reading Behavior Change Truth: Action Is Harder Than Inaction

Psychology for Health and Happiness