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Focussing on Happiness (Part 3)

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

You can read both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series here, and then this article will make a lot more sense!

So, now we know that we have some intuitions and thinking patterns which don't serve us well in making good decisions about things that will make us happier. If these annoying features of the brain are evolutionary idiosyncrasies, then can we do anything about them? Well, the answer is a big YES!

Let's take each of the annoying features of the brain in turn and work out a way to mitigate the effect. Feature 1 was about our intuitions being a little off and this is addressed by just being more conscious about our choices. In knowing that money, beauty, marriage and getting ‘stuff’ doesn't make us happier, we can moderate our intuitions in these matters. Additionally, by building new habits about all of the other features as listed below, we start to re-wire our intuition.

Feature 2: Our minds judge relative to reference points.

If your brain likes reference points, reset your reference points. There are five great ways to achieve this:

  1. Concretely Re-Experiencing: If you've adjusted to your dream job or amazing new car, try to find ways to re-experience the reference point you had before. this could be taking a ride in your previous make and model of car, or going back to visit your old workplace. By concretely re-experiencing, we re-energise our appreciation for what we have now.

  2. Concretely Observe: In addition to re-experiencing, we can concretely observe those situations that we may never have experienced, but can still build our appreciation for our lives as they are now. People often talk of travelling as a hugely humbling experience, giving us new appreciation for things we may often have taken for granted. I mean, doesn't that cup of tea always taste so good when you get back home, or the comfort of your own bed?

  3. Avoid Social Comparisons: One of the best ways of achieving this is just to totally delete your social media accounts. I'm pretty sure most would however say that's one step too far, so perhaps moderating our use? Could we become better editors of our social media feed? Stop subscribing to that product page that pushes body ideals or an unobtainable material goal. Could hiding a specific person's content help?

  4. Interrupt your Consumption: If you force yourself to 'interrupt' your consumption of something that you're enjoying then you will get the benefit of a new reference point midway through! For example, if you fancy a sweet treat, split it in half and enjoy it in two sittings. For all those binge watchers out there, a study by Nelson and Meyvis (2008) found that taking a break from consuming your favourite media also gives you a little uptick in your perceived enjoyment of the music or programme. I recently discovered how to turn off the 'autoplay next episode' on Netflix which I am sure has made me happier!

  5. Increase your Variety. Getting the same ice cream each time will increase your familiarity and only offer you the one reference point. Mixing it up, it would appear, is the spice of life!

Feature 3: Our minds are built to get used to stuff.

Also known as hedonic adaptation, too much of a good thing, just makes it normal, so, just stop buying stuff! Or, more precisely, stop buying material things and instead think about buying experiences instead. One great study measured the happiness of people before, during and after a purchase:

It was found that this trend in happiness is consistent across all income brackets. Additional research also demonstrated that experiential purchases give you happiness boost for much longer, showing a noticeable effect up to four weeks post consumption.

The best side benefit of spending money on experiences is however entirely social. An experience gives us something to talk about and share. These enhanced resources for storytelling help us to make a positive impression on other people demonstrated by a brilliant study which shared the traits attributed to people who were either categorised as materialistic or experiential people. Those in the materialist camp had Trendy, Enjoys Buying Things and Self Centred or Selfish in the top three positions as compared to Humorous, Friendly and Open-Minded for the Experiential People. (Van Boven et al 2010)

How can we interrupt our hedonic adaptation then? There are three strategies that can help:

  1. Savouring: Step outside the experience and consciously review and appreciate it. This mindful consumption really boosts our appreciation. Jose et al highlighted a number of ways we could enhance our savouring which included telling someone else about how good it was, sharing it with someone or by just being mindfully present.

  2. Negative Visualisation: Now this might initially sound counter intuitive, but we can renew our appreciation for something by imagining that you no longer have the thing you value. Couples were invited to score their happiness immediately after visualising that their partner was no longer a part of their lives and the exercise offered a significant bump to their happiness.

  3. Gratitude: The simple act of just writing down 5 things that we're grateful for at the end of each day boosts our happiness (Emmons & McClullough 2010), but not just that... It appeared that in the same study, just being grateful also made people exercise more each day!

Feature 4: We don’t realise that our minds are built to get used to stuff

As with feature number 1, we just don't predict our emotional futures very well. We can overcome this with improving our knowledge of how our brain works. So, lucky you, reading this article and improving your ability to consciously improve your prediction abilities will support your happiness! Better still, why don't you enrol on the Yale course yourself? It's free and it goes into even more detail about the science of wellbeing.

I hope this short series has offered a few interesting facts and insights...

Thanks for reading!

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