Tag Archives: behavior change

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.

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?

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

Three Simple Tricks to Maximize Follow-Through

“If I were you, I’d call an ambulance right now.”

I was on the phone with a doctor after-hours asking what we should do about some symptoms my husband was experiencing after a minor car accident. The urgent care clinic we normally use was closed for the day, and I was wondering if it was worth going to the Emergency Room. The doctor clearly felt that the ER was where we needed to be, and in a smooth bit of behavior change judo, made sure that’s where we ended up. She did three specific things that quickly got me moving: Continue reading Three Simple Tricks to Maximize Follow-Through

Believing In Behavior Change Means Believing People Can Change

I suppose this post is politically motivated, although I’ll try to leave the actual politics out so as to not obscure my point by putting off people with beliefs different than mine. I’ve noticed two general behavior patterns that disturb me with respect to politics and positions. The first is when a politician is called out for past behaviors or viewpoints in a way that implies he or she will never be fit for future service, regardless of current behaviors or viewpoints. The second is people who declare a change of heart and are told that it’s too little too late. The philosophy here is essentially that if someone has made mistakes in the past, then there is no room for them in the future. And as much as I sometimes also bristle at the things on someone’s resume, I just don’t believe that’s true. I can’t do the work I do and believe that’s true. Continue reading Believing In Behavior Change Means Believing People Can Change

What’s in a Nudge? Our SXSW Submission

I am super excited about the panel I submitted for SXSW 2018. It’s called “What’s in a Nudge? Behavior Change in Health” and it will focus on the uses and limits of behavioral economics in engaging patients with their healthcare. I’m a little amazed at the caliber of the speakers who agreed to be part of the panel–all women who I admire professionally and personally: Continue reading What’s in a Nudge? Our SXSW Submission

How Can Voice Tech Help Health Behavior Change? The Alexa Diabetes Challenge

I’ve gotten to do some cool work things lately. One big one is getting involved in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, sponsored by Merck & Co., and supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS). Contestants are tasked with coming up with an idea, and later a working prototype, for an intervention that leverages Alexa’s voice technology to support people newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The challenge administrators, Luminary Labs, curated a panel of subject matter experts across a variety of domains to work with the five finalists. I’m supporting them on behavior change, along with Marika Saarinen, a PharmD and certified diabetes educator at Virginia Mason. Continue reading How Can Voice Tech Help Health Behavior Change? The Alexa Diabetes Challenge

Behavioral Economics Black Magic: Fixed Schedule Billing

I have a feeling that if you asked most people how gyms make money, they’d intuitively grasp for an explanation that involves fixed schedule billing. The idea is simple. Businesses that operate under a subscription fee, like gyms, automatically withdraw the next payment each period unless the customer provides written de-authorization a certain number of days or weeks in advance. For a variety of reasons, many people will go on paying for months or years without using the service. The result is a steady profit stream for the business and a customer spending money for no value. Continue reading Behavioral Economics Black Magic: Fixed Schedule Billing

Nudge Me to the Ballot Box: Behavioral Economics in Action

I found a postcard in our mailbox last week that was a textbook example of several behavioral economics and behavior change tactics. Its intention is to nudge people to vote more consistently, including in smaller local elections. The group sending the card, the Environmental Voter Project, urges voters to support politicians and policies for sustainability. It’s an interesting example of how some behavioral economics tactics might actually come to life in an intervention. Continue reading Nudge Me to the Ballot Box: Behavioral Economics in Action