Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Psychology of Happiness

If there is something that is within your control to change for the better, then change it; accept the things that you can’t change and do not dwell on them.

I recently attended a valuable presentation on the psychology of happiness by Dr. Randy Larson, a psychology professor at Washington University in Saint Louis. It was an event that I found via, which is a social site connecting locals to activities and groups within their community. The day before (01.31.14) was the Lunar New Year and also my last day of work. The lecture was a great way to start my “new year” off on a positive and insightful note.

I left the event with a profound feeling of satisfaction of my own life and with further conviction that happiness can be attainable with the right attitude. While most people would probably be stressed out about being laid off without a new job lined up, I have been rather calm and collected about my situation. I think that my ability to handle negative events has led me to find happier person in myself and Dr. Larson’s lecture put that into perspective.

So, what is happiness? In order to understand it, one would need to define happiness. The definition among modern psychologists is that “happiness is having more positive than negative emotions in your life over time, PLUS feeling that your life is meaningful and satisfying.” A more scientific or mathematic representation of this equation can be seen as:

Happiness = (ΣPA/ΣNA) + Satisfaction with Life

ΣPA = Sum of Positive Affect
ΣNA = Sum of Negative Affect
(ΣPA/ΣNA) = Ratio of Positive Affect to Negative Affect over a representative portion of time
Satisfaction = A judgment that one’s life is meaningful, fulfilling, etc..

What was interesting was that Dr. Larson pointed out that a Negative Affect (NA) is stronger than a Positive Affect in terms of reactivity, duration, and cognitive involvement. He was able to validate this in studies that he did with samples of WashU students.

Think about this in your personal life. Consider something good that happened to you and also something bad that happened. Pick events that are comparable to terms of extremity. For example, winning a million dollars is not quite comparable to losing one dollar. However, it would be comparable to losing a million dollar. Consider how each of those events affected you. How happy did the positive event make you and how unhappy the negative event make you? How long did the positive event make you happy and how long did the negative event make you unhappy?

Dr. Larson’s studies showed that NA trumped PA in most cases. Over the course of a month, the subjects were assessed for PA and NA three times day.  Occasions where PA was very high were selected and its affect on the next three positive occasions was examined. The same assessment was performed for NA and the next three negative occasions. The studies showed that the initial PA and initial NA had the longest duration, but both were near equal to each other. The next three PA’s duration got increasingly short and short with each occasion. The same was true for the NAs. What was interesting though was that the duration of NA 2-4 was two to three times longer than its PA counterparts.

Dr. Larson used the term “negativity bias” to describe how our brains respond to negative events more strongly than equally positive events. Maybe a real key to finding happiness is to learn how to deal with the NA affectively and to make diminish its affect on us. If anyone has caught any of my previous posts, you will understand that this is something I have been learning to do for the last six months. The summer of 2013 was rough and probably the lowest point in my life. It was starting to take a physical toll on me and I knew that I had to change something.

What I decided to change was my mindset.  There were good things in my life that I was overlooking because I was spending so much energy being depressed. I refocused my energy on the friends who were there and on the hobbies that made me happy. When I started to shift to a more positive mindset, I was able to start seeing the negative things that transpired over the summer in a more positive light. I wasn’t delusional and didn’t suddenly think that all my problems were gone. If these things did not happen, I would not have been forced to finally recognize that the way I dealt with my emotions and people was just not working.

The things that I was doing to distract myself were not only just keeping me occupied but they were also helping me grow as a person. It made me a believer in the cliché that “everything happens for a reason”. I am happy to accept that wherever I am in life right now is exactly where I am supposed to be.

If there is something that is within your control to change for the better, then change it; accept the things that you can’t change and do not dwell on them. It is easier said than done, but practice makes perfect or pretty darn close to it. I am not perfect and I still have my ups and downs, but the amount of time I stay down has changed significantly. It is probably with this mindset that I was able to take the news of my layoff so well. I was excited to finally get that push to find something that I love to do. It was as if the universe was telling me “GO!"

We’ve all heard the term that money can’t buy you happiness. How many of you actually believe that? I think that wealthy people get more instant satisfaction, but they have problems like the rest of us. They might have rich people’s problems, but those problems still make them unhappy nonetheless. Dr. Larson showed some correlations that were performed on the relationship between wealth and happiness. Drum rolls please... the results showed that wealthy people weren't really any happier.

Once again, I go back to the idea that people can experience instant satisfaction from being able to buy exactly what they want when they want it. That quickly neutralizes and they go back to their normal state of happiness. Another example that validates this point is the study of lottery winners. In a study of lottery winners, the winners experienced consistent happiness for about year, but then went back to normal after the first year. So, it looks like I don’t have to try to be a millionaire after all!

Another factor that didn’t seem to affect happiness was age or sex. Men and women were fairly equal and all six age groups examine produced almost identical results. This is great news as I near my big 3-0!

I am excited to see what this year brings me. Life is about learning everyday and that's what I try to do. Most importantly, I am learning more about myself and challenging myself to be comfortable with changes and exploring the unknown.

I hope everyone has a great evening!

Pin It Now!