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Posts tagged ‘Elizabeth Dunn Lara Aknin and Michael Norton’

The Powers and Perils of Adaptation: What You Can and Can’t Do About Your Happiness

Suppose you had the option of either winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. Which one would you pick? Most people would choose the lottery, and that’s understandable, millions of dollars is better than not walking for the rest of your life.

Let’s make the question a little harder: Which scenario do you think would make you happier?

In 1978, three psychologists set out to try to find the answer. After tracking lottery winners and paraplegics, they found that one year after their respected life changing events both reported the same level of happiness. How is this possible?

Humans are remarkable adaptors. We do a good job of getting over break ups, lay-offs, and divorces even though they are initially painful. We also do a good job of adapting to environments. A study done by David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman showed that people in California are no more happy than people in the mid-west and vice versa. Unfortunately, our ability to adapt spoils our ability to appreciate new technology. I am sure many of you know from experience that it only takes a few weeks for the latest gadgets – ipods, computers, cars – to become boring. And replacing the old with the new only perpetuates the problem – what some call “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill.”

That we successfully adapt to emotional adversity and unfortunately adapt to the novelty of material possessions helps explain the paradox of the lottery winners and paraplegics. One group adapted to an emotional problem while the other adapted to material possessions, and although they took opposite routes, both reverted back to their default states. Examples of emotional and material adaptation are everywhere: As a freshmen in college you miss home, as a senior, you dread home; a recent breakup causes you to think that you will never find anyone again, a few months later you discover the new love of your life; the new video game is endless fun, the same game is never played again after a few weeks; the latest Lady Gaga song is your new favorite, the same song is old a few days later. You get the point.

There is a simple evolutionary explanation for all of this. Those who adapted to emotional challenges quickly were favored over those who dwelled on the past. And our tendency to adapt to materials, which has turned out to be bad for buyers but fantastic for sellers, is a byproduct of this.

This suggests that in terms of personal happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, you have less control than you think. There is truth to this. As Jonathan Haidt explains, “in the long run, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness set point – your brain’s default level of happiness.”

But this is not to say you have no control. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves significantly improves our well-being. A study done by Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan shows that those who give more help and support to their spouses, friends, and relatives live longer and those who give less. Moreover, Martin Seligman, the director of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, explains that writing a letter of gratitude to someone who had a big impact on your life and delivering it in person causes a significant increase in happiness in the long-term.

Findings like these go on and on. The important takeaway is that humans are highly adaptable, and that this works for us emotionally but against us materially. However, it never gets old to give to others, help others, and be thankful to others.

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Positive Psychology: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Until the turn of the 20th century, most of psychology focused on how individuals survived under conditions of adversity. It was largely a field that had a self-help stigma attached to it; rarely did it study the conditions in which normal individuals were happy or happiest. The 2000 paper, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” by Martin E. P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, changed this. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi called for psychology to shift its attention from “curing mental illness,” to “making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling.” From this, positive psychology has come to study and understand the “valued subjective experiences… [of] well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present).” Along the way, it has produced several great books that have outlined its findings, and pushed the positive psychology movement as a whole.

This being said, the positive psychology movement seems to have branched into two groups: those that prescribe, and those that describe. Martin Seligman, who has written a couple of books –  Authentic Happiness and Flourish – that outline prescriptive theories that aim to improve happiness and well-being (two very different things according to Seligman, but not important here), represents the former group. As the head of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, Seligman is obviously a big proponent of the prescriptive side of positive psychology. As he explains in the introduction to Flourish:

Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapost, giving positive psychology exercises to tenth graders in a classroom, parenting little kids with positive psychology, teaching drill sergeants how to teach about post-traumatic growth, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all make people happier (2). 

The later group has resisted this self-help attitude. As Dan Gilbert warns in the introduction to his book Stumbling on Happiness, “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy.” As I said, psychologists in this camp are more concerned with describing happiness – that is, figuring out what makes happy people happy – than they are with prescribing happiness. There are two possible reasons for this. First, they are skeptical of evidence which demonstrates that the findings of positive psychology actually can help people become happy. Second, they believe it is difficult to say that someone has become happier because they read or studied positive psychology literature – correlation does not equal causation, in other words.

These two points are valid, and I am especially concerned by the second one because it is a thorn in a lot of positive psychology research. Consider this. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves is much more beneficial for our well-being. In their words, “spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending).” So from this we conclude that happy people tend to frequently spend money on others. But here is the question: does spending money on others cause people to be happy? Or do people spend money on others because they are already happy? An interesting question that could be applied to a number of positive psychology studies. For example, one of the biggest findings to come out of the positive psychology movement is that the happiest people have the strongest social relationships. But again, is it that strong social relationships cause people to be happy? Or is it that people have strong social relationships because they are happy?

This is a key question in terms of the descriptive/prescriptive debate. If the correlations between happy people and the activities they participate in are not causal, then there is a big opportunity for people like Seligman who are interested in prescribing happiness. They can identify the characteristics of happy people, and simply tell others to adapt these characteristics (this is what Flourish is about). But if the correlations are causal, then it seems that it would be difficult for psychologists to be prescriptive. In other words, even if psychologists know that people have strong social relationships because they are happy, it doesn’t follow that they would know how to improve sociability.

Ultimately, more time is needed. Positive psychology is young, as I have mentioned, and like any field in its infancy, a few more decades of research will work out the kinks.

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