Archive for April, 2008

Increasing happiness: activities and circumstances

How do we go about increasing our happiness? We have all striven for something we believed would make us happy – a new house, a relationship, or a flexible job – only to find that, 3 months later, our happiness fell right back to where it started. At this point, we may have enthusiastically chosen a new goal to strive for, or we may have realized what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation”: that we quickly adapt to any favourable (or unfavourable) change in our circumstances, and that our happiness remains essentially constant.

The evidence for hedonic adaptation is well established. Lottery winners report an initial high followed by an eventual return to their former levels of happiness. Similarly, recent paralysis victims report the same happiness levels as before their misfortune, aside from an initial low. This is also true for less dramatic changes in our life: marriage, income, and the region in which we live, all have very little impact on our long-term happiness. So, if none of these things will help our happiness, is there anything that can help us be happier?

The key to sustainable happiness is to change our activities rather than our circumstances. A change in circumstances, such as a new car, relationship, or promotion, can quickly be taken for granted. It becomes a background fact that does little to alter our happiness. On the other hand, changes in our activities or behaviour do have the potential to permanently increase our happiness. Examples of activity/behavioural changes include beginning to exercise daily, practising smiling at people, learning to meditate, or starting each day by writing a list of things to be thankful for. Hedonic adaptation applies only to changes in circumstance, and not to changes in activity.

Therefore, when we seek to increase our happiness, we should look to change our activities and not our circumstances. Of course, sometimes a change in circumstance may lead to a change in our activities. For example, if our new car just means driving to work instead of going by bus, then we will quickly adapt. On the other hand, if our new car means that we can now drive to the mountains and take up hiking, and if we do this regularly, then substantial increases in our happiness could result. Similarly, a relationship for which we are consistently thankful and into which we pour all our energy and love is likely to yield great benefits. However, if we begin to take our relationship for granted, we will be back to where we started.

Permanent increases in happiness are possible, but they require a sustained and intelligent application of effort. We must develop useful habits and ways of thinking, a good one being the practise of gratitude (see Gratitude: Focus on what is right with life). The traditional goals of more money, a nicer house, and a faster car, will not help us. We must change our activities, our behaviours, our thinking…not merely our circumstances.

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Trust your intuition: don’t think about love!

Have you ever been asked why you like someone? Have you ever been at a loss for words? In today’s society, we are expected to have reasons for everything we do and think. Moreover, we are expected to elucidate those reasons. Intangible concepts such as intuition or gut-instinct are seldom considered “rational reasons” for our actions. Yet, as research shows, these can actually be the most reliable guide of all.

Research by Timothy Wilson and colleagues asked university couples how well-adjusted they considered their relationships. Some couples were allowed to answer based on gut-feel, whereas others were asked to first analyse their relationship out load and verbally explain the reasons for their answers. The experiment found that the couples who answered based on gut-feel were significantly more accurate at assessing their relationships than those who first explained their reasons, as measured by whether they were still together several months later. This demonstrates that our intuition can outperform our ability to verbally reason. See Less thinking leads to better decisions for more examples.

What is the problem with verbal reasoning? The problem is that not all thoughts can be expressed in words. If we reason about something verbally, we tend to skim over those thoughts that we cannot easily express. Thus, if asked to explain why we like someone, we focus on concrete traits that we can describe, whereas most of what we value in a relationship really falls under the category of intangible and inexpressible qualities. This may explain why couples are much better at evaluating their relationships when they answer solely based on intuition.

Thus, whether justifying our actions to ourselves or to another, referring to intuition or gut-feel is a perfectly valid explanation. Concrete and tangible reasons may be attractive – they can be easily shared with others, they can be written down in a table of pros and cons – but at the end of the day they can only capture a small component of what is important. The power of intuition to grasp all of this and more, and to sum this up as a feeling, is foolish to ignore…particularly in matters of love.

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