Friday, June 19, 2009

What you don’t know, makes you happier?!?!?!

Paper we’re looking at: The Pleasures of Uncertainty: Prolonging Positive Moods in Ways People Do Not Anticipate – Dan Gilbert et al

We’ve all heard the cliché “Everything happens for a reason.”

Of course, we’re all smart enough to question the wisdom of that, too – Does everything really happen for a reason, or do we just find a reason afterwards for what’s happened?

But psychologists pose a more interesting question: Is it healthy to LOOK for a reason for the things that happen?

Like all important questions, there is no single and simple answer here. But we HAVE learned some amazing things about the answer to this question, which impacts ALL of us, every day.

We all have what can be thought of as a psychological baseline when it comes to happiness. It’s different for everybody, and the easiest way to think about it is like a thermostat. So let’s play with that analogy for a minute. Let’s assume that warming up means getting happier.

Some people walk around at 50 degrees – They’re pretty sour, most of the time. Other people walk around near 80 degrees – these are the people who always seem to be happy – you know, the people you want to smack.

Whenever something happens (either good or bad), there is a change in mood. People who start off happier will get even happier with good news, and people who start off depressed will get even more depressed with bad news.

BUT – And here’s the kicker – within a certain period of time, they’ll always return to their base level.

This isn’t surprising – You take the first bite of a chocolate bar, and it makes you happier. It tastes wonderful. But before you’re even done eating it, you’re back to whatever your base level was before you started. The key to eternal happiness, unfortunately, is not in endless chocolate bars.

So the million dollar question is – How can we increase the lapse between feeling happier & going back down to the baseline, and how can we DECREASE the time between feeling sadder, and moving back up to the baseline?

That’s what this paper is all about.

Here’s the meat of the paper: Finding meaning in ANY event brings us back to our baseline faster and more reliably than assigning NO meaning to the event.

Quote from the paper: “Studies of bereavement, for example, have found that people who are able to find meaning in the death of a loved one cope better than people who are unable to find any meaning in their loss. Pennebaker and colleagues found that people who write about traumatic events (typically for 15 min on 3 consecutive days) experience remarkable long-term benefits. The people who benefit the most are those who begin with disjointed, incoherent accounts of their trauma but end with coherent, organized accounts, presumably because the writing exercise helped them make sense of their negative experiences.”

There is more useful knowledge in that one paragraph than by all the books of Dr. Phil combined.

It’s worth a second thought – and a third, and a tenth, and a hundredth thought. When you find MEANING in a traumatic event, when you can “make sense” of things, you experience tremendous long-term benefits. When you see things in terms of meaninglessness, or random acts, you lose out on those benefits.

[We’re going to focus on some of Pennebaker’s research in the future – for now, it’s enough to keep in mind that he found HUGE benefits in writing about traumatic experiences in order to ‘make sense’ of them.]

So what about the flip side, then? The theory that pops up here is that if we experience something POSITIVE, we’d actually be happier if we didn’t know why it happened. (Think about the concept of the ‘Random Act of Kindness’ – When somebody does something nice for you, for no apparent reason, it makes you happier for longer than if they did something nice for you for a very predictable reason.)

Quote from the paper: “In addition to predicting that a dose of uncertainty following a positive event will prolong the pleasure it causes, we expected that people would not recognize in advance the role of uncertainty. In fact, given that uncertainty is often associated with negative affect, people might predict the opposite, namely that they will derive less pleasure from uncertain positive events than certain ones.”

There was a really cool study done here – Here’s the description:

“Participants watched an abridged version of the movie Rudy, the true story of Daniel Ruettiger, who dreamed of attending Notre Dame and playing on the football team. Rudy does not have much athletic skill, but he makes the team through grit and determination only to warm the bench at every game.

“At the last home game of Rudy’s senior year, his teammates insist that he get to play, so the coach puts him in on defense in the closing seconds—at which point Rudy breaks through the line and makes a spectacular tackle… After watching the film, participants read two versions of what happened to Rudy after he graduated from college, which described equally positive outcomes that differed in their details. Participants in the certain condition were told which version was true of Rudy, but participants in the uncertain condition were not.

“We predicted that people in both conditions would be in a positive mood immediately after watching the film but that this positive affect would last longer in the uncertain condition.”

Here’s what they found. In almost EVERY case, people indicated beforehand that they’d prefer to be CERTAIN. They wanted to know.

But who was happier, for longer, after the experiment? Who’s “uplift” lasted? Well, you can probably already guess that it was the people who were left with uncertainty. They didn’t know exactly what happened, so there was some ‘mystery’ or some uncertainty. They couldn’t completely make sense of the narrative, and they were left happier, longer, because of it.

“The present studies suggest that people’s actual experiences will be more pleasurable if they know that an event will be positive but there is some uncertainty associated with it (a moderate amount of uncertainty, perhaps). People should not walk out of a movie theater before the film ends if they are not sure whether the ending will be happy or sad. Once they have determined that the hero and heroine will end up together, however, and live happily ever after, perhaps they should head for the exit before they find out exactly how the couple made it to the altar.”

The experiments done in this paper bring up some VERY intriguing points, and should give us all some pause. First, they remind us that when bad things happen, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by ruminating about them – instead, we should be trying to make sense of it. To put it into a narrative that makes sense, even if that sense making doesn’t seem like a particularly happy story. We’re reminded in this paper that people are basically sense-making machines, and that when bad things happen, we do better when we can think about it in a logical way.

But we’re also left with an intriguing “flip side” to that coin – namely, that when GOOD things happen, working to make sense of it or to remove the ‘mystery’ will only serve to deflate us more quickly. So don’t be afraid to leave some unanswered questions when good things are happening – You’ll be happier, longer, than if you figure it all out.

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