The Psychology of Happiness
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The Psychology of Happiness

There are a lot of things for us to anticipate—good and bad—in the days ahead during this pandemic. Here’s what you can do to exercise your muscles of anticipation and increase your happiness

By Roberta Vriesema, Representative

You’ve probably heard the phrase fake it until you make it. Similarly, psychology 101 students are often taught that it’s possible to improve your mood simply by looking in a mirror and smiling at yourself for five minutes. This releases neurotransmitters in your brain linked to positive moods and enhanced sense of well-being.

Smiling—even fake smiling—can help you feel better. You can fake it until you make it.

This area of study in psychology, sometimes called the psychology of happiness, is something that author Gretchen Rubin writes about extensively in her book The Happiness Project, which just had its 10-year anniversary with a rereleased and revised edition.

In reflecting on our sheer lack of knowing when it comes to COVID-19, the righteous anger and accounting for racism erupting from George Floyd’s death, and the emotional reality of missing my people and my normal routines, my mind was drawn to the psychology of happiness. In particular, I was drawn to the work being done seeking to understand anticipation as it relates to happiness.

Much like fake smiling can make you feel better, knowing a bit more about anticipation might help you make some choices on how you’re going to respond to everything that’s going on in the world today going forward.

Researchers studying anticipation found that people receive a boost to overall happiness and well-being when eagerly anticipating a positive event. After the event, most people very quickly return to the level of happiness experienced prior to the period of anticipation.

But some people ended up slightly happier, and an even fewer number ended up slightly less happy. No one saw greatly increased overall happiness after the event.

The size of the event didn’t seem to make a difference. Whether it was a trip to Disneyland or earning a reward off a chore chart, each event showed the same pattern of exaggerated happiness before and a return to nearly normal happiness afterward.

And it didn’t seem to matter if the event was successful or if it was a flop that didn’t live up to expectations. These results were repeated in multiple variations of this study.

Researchers then studied anticipation of negative events. Here the results were a little less consistent.

Based on the positive study, researchers expected to see that as people anticipated a negative event, they would become more negative leading up to the event. After the event, people would return to their baseline happiness.

Instead, researchers found that the more people anticipated the event, the more negative they became leading up to the event and the more negatively they experienced it. Their overall happiness level went down and stayed down after the event.

Researchers realized that some people naturally engaged in reframing the event by contextualizing and minimizing their thought patterns prior to the negative event. They did this by

  Finding the proverbial silver lining

  Comparing the anticipated results of their negative event and ranking it to other negative events

  Measuring their resilience—I’ve managed this before and I’ll manage it again

  Telling themselves it wasn’t going to be that bad and that they were making a mountain out of a mole hill

Each of these strategies made a difference. People who reframed a negative event were much more likely to return closer to their initial baseline happiness level.

No matter what approach was taken by the test subjects, the severity and result of the negative event did play a role in the person’s overall happiness after the event. But these results were less clear and have not stood up in later studies.

Applying the psychology of happiness and anticipation to where things are at in the world today, we are faced with a lot of things to anticipate—both good and bad. We can anticipate and spend time considering how things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Research suggests that spending time in these thoughts will drive down our overall happiness and increase the negative experience.

But we can also anticipate positive events:

  The day when restrictions are lifted and we get to meet with anyone we choose

  The day when we can shop again with no preparation

  The day when we can go where we want and do what we want when we want

Yet these are still far off, undefined events to anticipate. So perhaps daily you can find little events to anticipate.

  Is there a special dinner to plan for this weekend?

  Is there an Amazon parcel you’ve been watching for inching its way to you?

  Is there a nearby trail calling your name?

What can you do to exercise your muscles of anticipation and increase your happiness—even if it is just for today?

A quick survey of my household—spouse, two dogs, two cats—says that 100 percent of us have COVID-19 fatigue. We are all done with the restrictions, done with the news cycle that seems to contradict itself with each new segment, and done with the daily briefings.

Until the big positive events happen, we’ll continue to anticipate the daily little ones, and look into the mirror and smile.

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