TIME psychology

Can You Really Predict What Will Make You Happy?

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Here’s what most people think will make them happy, in order of importance:

Via The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain:

A survey of more than 2,015 people conducted by the British research company Ipsos MORI revealed that people believe the following five factors are most likely to enhance happiness (they are listed in order of importance).

1) More time with family
2) Earning double what I do now
3) Better health
4) More time with friends
5) More traveling

Are they right?

Looking at the research, and sticking with just these five options, the order of importance looks more like this:

1) Better health
2) More time with friends
3) More time with family
4) More traveling
5) Earning double what I do now

Health

How people value health varies dramatically based on age, which probably isn’t too much of a surprise. Tali Sharot points out that:

Only 10 percent of respondents from fifteen to twenty-four years old rated better health as one of the top five factors that would make them happy, as opposed to 45 percent of people over seventy-five.

That said, economists value your health as equivalent to an extra $463,170 a year, dwarfing other factors:

Improvement in health has one of the largest effects on life satisfaction; a move from having a very poor health to having an excellent health is worth around an extra £300,000 a year.

A good deal of research lumps friends and family together. Harvard Happiness expert Daniel Gilbert (author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness) sums up much of his research by saying:

Family & Friends

We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.

Having a better social life can be worth as much as an additional $131,232 a year in terms of life satisfaction:

I find that an increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction. Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.

Slumdwellers in Calcutta are much happier than you might expect largely due to relationships.

Travel

Travel, in terms of vacations, provides a modest benefit. (Commuting, on the other hand is devastating to happiness and might even end marriages.)

Money

Money, once you get above a pretty good salary, doesn’t add much happiness:

…people in the US who make $75,000 a year…are just as happy as those who make $150,000. Any higher income is not going to increase emotional well-being, but a lower income is associated with less emotional well-being, Scollon explained.

That said, how you spend money can affect how much it increases happiness. And at the risk of splitting hairs, while money has very little effect on moment to moment happiness, it is associated with being more satisfied with your life when looked at in the big picture.

Why do we get it so wrong?

Looking at Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness my main takeaway was this:

Much of our unhappiness springs from the fact that we’re terrible at accurately remembering how things made us feel in the past, so we make bad choices regarding the future.

In Gilbert’s own words (and backed up by many studies):

We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation.

Do you dread going to work, going to the gym or to that family gathering? How do you really feel when you finally get there or after? It’s often very different from your prediction. Some things that look like an enormous chore to do in the future are actually very fulfilling in the moment and afterward… like, oh, blogging.

Stop trusting your memory. Write things down.

Does that seem like work?

Well, Gilbert has a great research-backed suggestion that is quick and easy:Look at other people, what they do, and how they react in the moment:

This trio of studies suggests that when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

Want to learn more about what will make you happy? Go here.

TIME psychology

How to Be Optimistic: 4 Steps Backed By Research

Should you see a glass as half empty or half full?

If you want to live a better life, and you care what research has to say, there’s a clear answer to this question: half full.

Scientific research has come up with a long list of benefits to being optimistic. Here are just a few:

  1. Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life.
  2. Research has shown that practicing optimism and gratitude causes (not just correlates with) an increase in happiness.
  3. The army teaches soldiers to be optimistic because it makes them tougher and more persistent.
  4. Being socially optimistic — expecting people to like you — makes people like you more.
  5. Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations made groups more likely to come to a deal and to be happy with it.
  6. Optimists are luckier. Research shows by thinking positive they persevere and create more opportunities for themselves.
  7. Optimistic salespeople are more successful.

The list goes on and on. Being optimistic is one of the ten things I recommend you do every day and something associated with great lives.

On the flip side, UPenn professor and happiness expert Martin Seligmanexplains pessimism is very often a negative:

Research has revealed, predictably, that pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents make fewer sales attempts, are less productive and persistent, and quit more readily than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT’s and past academic record, than optimistic students…

But it turns out many of the common methods for becoming more positive are bunk. Standing in front of the mirror saying cheery things doesn’t help.

Via Learned Optimism:

Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills… We have found that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all.

So are we doomed if we’re not naturally optimistic? Don’t worry, Frodo, we’ll get you back to the Shire.

Here are the 4 steps that can turn pessimists into optimists — or even make mildly positive people very positive.

 

The 3 P’s

It all comes down to what researchers call “explanatory style.” When bad things happen, what kind of story do you tell yourself?

There are three important elements here. Let’s call them the 3 P’s: permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.

Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:

  1. Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
  2. Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
  3. Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)

Optimists, well, they see it the exact opposite:

  1. Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
  2. Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weatheris better that won’t be a problem.”)
  3. It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)

Seligman explains:

The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

And when good things happen, the situation reverses:

  1. Pessimists think good things will be short-lived, are rare and random.
  2. Optimists think good things will last forever, are universal and of their own doing.

What’s the ultimate result of this? Pessimists often quit. Life feels futile. And when life feels futile, you stop trying and frequently get depressed.

So now we understand the kind of thinking that underlies these positions… but how do you go from one to the other?

Research shows you should act like a crazy person… Okay, I’ll be more specific.

 

Argue With Yourself

How do you train a puppy not to poop on the carpet? It helps to catch him in the act.

When things don’t go your way, that voice in your head is going to tell a story. Check which explanatory style it’s using.

Is it saying bad things are going to be permanent and universal? Are you blaming yourself? That’s pessimism.

Watch your thinking and flip the script on the three:

  1. Change permanent explanations to more fleeting ones.
  2. Change pervasive responses to specific ones.
  3. Change personal reasoning to not-all-my-fault perspectives.

This doesn’t have to mean lying to yourself.

Do you really “always screw this up”? That’s probably not accurate. Was it100% your fault? Almost everything has multiple causes.

By remembering the 3 P’s and flipping the script, research shows you can make yourself more optimistic over time.

But that raises an interesting question: why would anyone ever want to be pessimistic? There’s a reason.

 

Pessimists Are More Accurate… But Pay A High Price

Plain and simple, pessimists see the world more accurately than optimists do.

Via Learned Optimism:

Overall, then, there is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately.

Wow. So when negative people say happy people are “lying to themselves”… sometimes they’re right.

The reason you predict your friends’ behavior better than they do is we’re all realistic about others’ actions and too optimistic about our own.

And if you’re in a job where seeing potential problems is vital and there are high costs to being wrong, pessimism can help you.

Via Learned Optimism:

…judiciously employed, mild pessimism has its uses…. The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities. They must make sure grim reality continually intrudes upon the optimists. The treasurer, the CPAs, the financial vice-president, the business administrators, the safety engineers— all these need an accurate sense of how much the company can afford, and of danger. Their role is to caution, their banner is the yellow flag.

Pessimistic entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed. Optimistic gamblers lose more money. The best lawyers are pessimists.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman explains:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers… The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities.

But while it makes lawyers better at their job, it comes at a high price.

Guess why lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to end up divorced?

While seeing bad things as potentially pervasive and permanent helps them do their job, it also carries over to their personal life:

The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Excuse the pun, but there is an upside to pessimism. So when should you be optimistic and when should you be pessimistic?

 

Ask Yourself “What’s The Cost Of Being Wrong Here?”

If I’m up for double murder I want a pessimistic attorney looking for all the problems in my case.

The engineer designing my car better be a rampant pessimist — his mind eagerly identifying every imaginable point of failure.

But do I want to walk around all day imagining the worst that could possibly happen? No way.

Whenever you’re unsure if optimism is the right way to handle something ask yourself: “What’s the cost of being wrong here?”

Via Learned Optimism:

The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism.

Seligman calls this balance “flexible optimism.”

Pessimism is a tool. Have it in the garage like a snowblower. You don’t need it every day but occasionally it’s valuable to have around.

So how do we tie all this together?

 

Sum Up

Want to be more positive? When problems arise, dispute negative thoughts by making sure your explanations are

  1. Transitory, not permanent.
  2. Specific, not pervasive.
  3. And the causes are external, not “all-my-fault.”

Pessimism can be a useful tool when the downside is big, but used as your default it makes life feel futile and hopeless.

And what does research say predicts achievement better than intelligence, grades or personality?

Hope.

There’s a reason pessimism brings us down: human nature is designed to hope and strive, not to be fearful and defensive.

Yes, pessimism might be slightly more accurate — but it’s no way to live a life.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME

How 5 Post-It Notes Can Make You Happy, Confident and Successful

Little Reminders Create Big Changes

You know why older people are happier?

Research shows as we age we remember the good and forget the bad:

…older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less.

Yeah, that’s all it takes. So if you could just regularly get reminders of the good things in your life, well, you’d be halfway there…

And it’s not speculation — research shows thinking about the good things actually does make you happier.

Reminders, something as simple as a post-it note, are very powerful – and for more than just remembering to buy milk.

Studies show simple reminders help people act more ethically, quit smoking, and save more money.

And a couple well placed post-it notes can have a major impact foryou too.

A while back I posted about how just sending 5 simple emails a day can improve your life.

Here are five little reminders that can help you create big changes:

1) HAPPINESS

Make note of three things you’re thankful for.

We think of happiness as something deep and profound but it’s often as simple as keeping the good things “top of mind.”

This technique has been proven again and again and again. Here it is, explained by its originator, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.

Here’s what’s really fascinating: the opposite works too. Keep a record of bad things and you’ll make yourself increasingly miserable.

Patients with chronic pain were told to keep track of all the awful symptoms they experienced. They did — and felt dramatically worse:

The use of a symptom diary for 2 weeks, even in generally healthy subjects, results in increased recall of daily symptoms and increased perception of symptom severity.

Stop thinking you need more good stuff to happen to be happier — and just remind yourself of the good that’s already here.

(More on how to be happy here.)

2) CONFIDENCE

Make a note of a couple accomplishments you’re most proud of.

What does University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock recommend when you’re not feeling so great about yourself?

Look at your resume.

Reviewing your credentials can remind you how talented you are and boost confidence levels.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

I immediately think about my research credentials, a trick I developed after discovering that getting people to think about aspects of themselves that are conducive to success can actually be enough to propel them to a top performance and prevent choking.

Your resume is designed to make you sound impressive to others — and it can have the same effect on you.

(More ways to be more confident here.)

3) OPTIMISM

Scribble down something you’re looking forward to.

Looking forward to something is powerful. It makes us hopeful, happier and optimistic.

Anticipation can actually be more pleasurable than getting the thing you’re anticipating:

…Mitchell et al (1997) found that people viewed the vacation in a more positive light before the experience than during the experience, suggesting that anticipation may sometimes provide more pleasure than consumption simply because it is unsullied by reality.

Got nothing you’re looking forward to? No problem. Make some fun plans — and then write those down.

(More on how to feel satisfied with life here.)

4) MEANING IN LIFE

Write down a favorite memory that makes you feel good.

Research shows we can add a feeling of meaning to our lives by being nostalgic:

The present research tested the proposition that nostalgia serves an existential function by bolstering a sense of meaning in life. Study 1 found that nostalgia was positively associated with a sense of meaning in life. Study 2 experimentally demonstrated that nostalgia increases a sense of meaning in life.

When life doesn’t make sense, get lost in that memory for a little while. Nostalgia restores a sense of purpose when times are hard.

(More on how to add meaning to your life here.)

5) SUCCESS

Write down the name of a hero you admire.

Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, says that one of the best things we can do is think more about the people we want to be like:

When we stare at someone we want to become and we have a really clear idea of where we want to be, it unlocks a tremendous amount of energy. We’re social creatures, and when we get the idea that we want to join some enchanted circle up above us, that is what really lights up motivation. “Look, they did it. I can do it.” It sounds very basic, but spending time staring at the best can be one of the most powerful things you do.

The hero doesn’t even have to be a real person. Batman? Wolverine? They’ll do just fine. Even fictional characters we admire motivate us to be like them:

…researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

Did you have a superhero poster on your bedroom wall when you were a kid? You were on to something. ;)

(More things research says can make you successful here.)

SUM UP

Five post-it notes. Five reminders.

That’s all it takes to add a bit more happiness, confidence, optimism, meaning and success to your life.

Sometimes you need something to make you feel lucky.

Sometimes you just need to be reminded that you already are.

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Related posts:

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

Faith in Humanity: 10 Studies to Restore Your Hope for the Future

ITALY-VATICAN-POPE-MAUNDY--THURSDAY
Pope Francis performs the traditional washing of the feet during a visit at a center for disabled people as part of Holy Thursday and Holy Week, April 17, 2014 in Rome. ALBERTO PIZZOLI—AFP/Getty Images

Reading a lot about the science of human behavior can make you cynical, sometimes deservedly so, but cynical nonetheless.

On this blog I try to be accurate and useful and, as I have posted, research shows there is great power in optimism and hope.

So I want to take a second to step back from brass tacks and take a look at some studies that can renew a faith in humanity.

The world is not always fair. The bad are not always punished and the good do not always prevail.

But there are plenty of reasons, scientifically tested, to have hope and be positive about the future.

1) You Bounce Back Better From Tougher Problems

From a study by Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness:

People rationalize divorces, demotions, and diseases, but not slow elevators and uninspired burgundies. The paradoxical consequence is that people may sometimes recover more quickly from truly distressing experiences than from slightly distressing ones (Aronson & Mills, 1958; Gerard & Mathewson, 1966; Zimbardo, 1966)…

2) Regret Is Not That Scary

We anticipate regret will be much more painful than it actually is. Studies show we consistently overestimate how regret affects us.

Another one from Stumbling on Happiness author Daniel Gilbert.

margins of loss can have an impact on emotional experience, and our studies merely suggest that however powerful that impact is, it is not as powerful as people anticipate.

3) “What Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger” Is Often True

Individuals who went through the most awful events came out stronger than those who did not face any adversity.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

In a month, 1,700 people reported at least one of these awful events, and they took our well-being tests as well. To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three— raped, tortured, and held captive for example— were stronger than those who had two.

4) Reverse PTSD Exists: Sometimes Terrible Events Make Us Better People

Tragedy not only can make us stronger, it can also make us better human beings.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

Thanks to this study, today we can say for certain, not just anecdotally, that great suffering or trauma can actually lead to great positive change across a wide range of experiences. After the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, for example, psychologists found many residents experienced positive psychological growth. So too do the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer. What kind of positive growth? Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.

5) Rarely In Life Are You Limited By Your Genes

How often does natural talent limit what you are capable of?

In ~95% of cases, it doesn’t.

Via Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, studied 120 outstanding achievers.They were concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. Most were not that remarkable as children and didn’t show clear talent before their training began in earnest… Bloom concludes, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else.

6) You Don’t Need To Win The Lottery To Be Happy

Very happy people don’t experience more happy events than less happy people.

Via 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior:

Ed Diener and Martin Seligman screened over 200 undergraduates for levels of happiness, and compared the upper 10% (the “extremely happy”) with the middle and bottom 10%. Extremely happy students experienced no greater number of objectively positive life events, like doing well on exams or hot dates, than did the other two groups (Diener & Seligman, 2002).

7) Helping Others Helps You

Undergrads who wrote letters of encouragement to “at-risk” middleschoolers advising them to persevere and that intelligence “is not a finite endowment but rather an expandable capacity” became, themselves, happier and better in school for months afterward.

Truth is, there were no middleschoolers. Just writing the letters achieved these results.

Via Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World:

Did these letters help the middle school students bounce back from adversity? It’s impossible to say — the letters were never delivered. But the mere experience of writing them had a lasting impact on the college students themselves. Months later, the letter writers were still reporting greater enjoyment of school than were other Stanford undergrads. Their grade point averages were higher, too, by a full third of a point on a four-point scale.

8) “Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Bloodwork performed on soldiers in challenging situations shows the body is stressed by the perceived, not actual, difficulty of circumstances.

Via Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom:

…the brain does not want the body to expend its resources unless we have a reasonable chance of success. Our physical strength is not accessible to us if the brain does not believe in the outcome, because the worst possible thing for humans to do is to expend all of our resources and fail. If we do not believe we can make it, we will not get the resources we need to make it. The moment we believe, the gates are opened, and a flood of energy is unleashed. Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.

9) Trusting Too Much Is Better Than Trusting Too Little

People were asked how much they trust others on a scale of 1 to 10. Income peaked at those who responded with the number 8.

Those with the highest levels of trust had incomes 7% lower than the 8′s. Research shows they are more likely to be taken advantage of.

Those with the lowest levels of trust had an income 14.5% lower than 8′s. That loss is the equivalent of not going to college. They missed many opportunities by not trusting.

10) Sometimes, Empathy Beats Objectivity

From my interview with Wharton Professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

There is a great study of radiologists by Turner and colleagues showing that when radiologists just saw a photo of the patient whose x-ray they were about to scan, they empathized more with the person, seeing that person as more of a human being as opposed to just an x-ray. As a result, they wrote longer reports, and they had greater diagnostic accuracy, significantly.

And One More:

11) The Most Powerful Goals Aren’t About Being Perfect; They’re About Getting Better

Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy. This effect even carries over to subsequent tasks.

Via Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur…Research shows that a focus on getting-better also enhances the experience of working; we naturally find what we do more interesting and enjoyable when we think about it in terms of progress, rather than perfection.

And getting better is what this blog is all about.

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Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

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What five things can make sure you never stop growing and learning?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Economy

Poll: Americans More Optimistic About Jobs

Job Seekers Look For Work At Career Fair In Detroit
A woman seeking employment fills out an application at a job fair at the Matrix Center April 23, 2014 in Detroit, Mich. Joshua Lott—Getty Images

30% say now is a good time to find a job, up from 8% in 2010

More Americans are optimistic about the job market this month than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis, according to a new poll, with 30% saying now is a good time to find a quality job.

That marks a significant improvement from the 8% who said they were optimistic about the job market in 2010, but it’s still a drop from the pre-2008 highs of almost 50%. And even though almost a third of Americans are optimistic, two-thirds still say the job market is lackluster; 66% of Americans say it’s not a good time to hunt for employment.

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