Tag 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.

Yes, Be Yourself: In Defense of Authenticity

Yes, Be Yourself!Over the weekend I saw a NY Times op ed article pop up in my RSS feed (yes, I maintain an RSS feed) that rebuts the idea of being yourself as a path to success. I’ve gone on record a few times advocating for authenticity as a way of life. I believe–and research supports–that being true to oneself is a way to feel happier and perform better. So why the sudden pushback from this particular author? Continue reading Yes, Be Yourself: In Defense of Authenticity

Motivation and Authenticity: Old Bedfellows

Motivation & Authenticity-For all of my interest in both motivation and authenticity, I was stunned to realize in reading a book about con artists (of all things) that the two have lived side-by-side in psychology for decades. It’s something I should have realized–I was familiar with the work in question–but hadn’t pulled back my perspective in so long that I missed the link. It turns out that Abraham Maslow, best known for the hierarchy of needs that continues to inform work on motivation and engagement, saw an important place for authenticity at the top of the hierarchy, self-actualization. Continue reading Motivation and Authenticity: Old Bedfellows

The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 2

The Forever Fat KidSo you’ve grown up overweight, awkward, unpopular, healthy or not, but now you’ve reached a point where you’re different. And you’re probably struggling to change your self-image and maybe even your behavior. From a health coaching perspective, I think it’s important to consider a person’s history and self-image in planning for future behavior change.

Continue reading The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 2

The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 1

The Forever Fat KidPeople change all the time. You can think of life as a process of becoming. But one of the funny things about identity, as a psychological state, is that you retain traces of the person you used to be in the person you are. After thinking of yourself a certain way during the formative times of your life, you internalize that identity, even when  your reality changes. Continue reading The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 1

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

Does Habit Tie Us Down or Set Us Free?

Does Habit Tie Us Down or Set Us Free-Habits can set people free, in some ways. By automating desired behavior patterns, we can make it easier to accomplish goals without conscious daily effort. Forming habits is a goal of many behavior change protocols, and something I personally try to incorporate into my self-improvement attempts. But recently I came across a line in a novel that made me wonder if it’s really that straightforward. Continue reading Does Habit Tie Us Down or Set Us Free?

Resolutions for the New Year (NOT New Year’s Resolutions!): Mind, Body, Soul

Resolutions for the New Year (NOT New Year's Resolutions!)For the last couple of years, I’ve had some defined goals beginning in January. I wouldn’t call them New Year’s resolutions–in fact, I think that approach can be counter-productive. Even so, the new year is a good reminder to thoughtfully evaluate one’s life. In 2014, I resolved to do one awesome thing each quarter. The result was my Year of Awesome. In 2015, I hooked into an initiative at work and picked goals for mind, body, and soul. Continue reading Resolutions for the New Year (NOT New Year’s Resolutions!): Mind, Body, Soul

Reshaping the “Mood Elevator”

Reshaping the -Mood Elevator-I recently completed a training for work that used a concept called the “mood elevator” to explain the emotions people might feel during the work day and how those impact performance and experience. The mood elevator describes a linear continuum of emotions with the most negative (“depressed”) at the bottom, and the most positive (“grateful”) at the top. The general idea is that people perform and feel better the closer they can get to the top of the mood elevator. The concept certainly has merit, but I think it can be improved. Continue reading Reshaping the “Mood Elevator”