Posts tagged happiness

Research Summaries: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences

Today’s research summary comes from another article in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Oxygen toxicity occurs when the lungs take in ...

Oxygen toxicity occurs when the lungs take in a higher than normal O 2 partial pressure, which can occur in deep scuba diving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big ideas:

  1. It is well established that experiential purchases (like going on a vacation) lead to greater happiness than material purchases (like buying a car). However, not much is known about which types of experiences lead to greater happiness and for whom.
  2. A dimension on which experiences reliably differ are whether they are ordinary, meaning common and frequent, or extraordinary, meaning infrequent and rare. For e.g., sipping a cup of coffee, may be an ordinary experience, while scuba diving on an an exotic vacation may be an extraordinary experience. Both types of experiences have the potential to increase happiness.
  3. A dimension on which people differ is their perceived time left, that is correlated with their chronological age. A young person believes that they have a lot of life ahead of them and are future oriented, while an older person believes that time is limited and its more prudent to focus on the here and now. The perceived time left can be manipulated in the laboratory (as the authors do in one of the studies) or it may vary naturally, for example a person suffering from cancer may have a limited perceived time left.
  4. The authors hypothesized that experiences lead to happiness, because they are in a a way processes used by people to define their self, and having a healthy and cherished self-concept leads to happiness and well-being. Extraordinary experiences are a sort of experiential CV of a person that highlight that their experiential (and emotional) high points.  Ordinary experiences are a sort of commonplace activities that define who you are and how you live your life.
  5. They also hypothesized that (psychologically) young people should be more obsessed with building their experiential CV and thus derive more happiness from extraordinary experiences as compared to ordinary experiences; (psychologically) older people, on the other hand, should derive greater happiness from ordinary experiences as compared to younger people, as they have a stable sense of self and self-concordant ordinary activities.
  6. What they found was that indeed, for younger people, extraordinary experiences are associated with greater happiness as compared to ordinary experiences. For older people, however, both extraordinary experiences and ordinary experiences carry the same happiness dividend, which is of the same magnitude as that received by younger people undergoing extraordinary experiences. Thus, while extraordinary experiences are associated with high levels of happiness throughout the age span, ordinary experiences start small and peak at life’s end.
  7. This has important implications for brands targeting experiential products to consumers. Brands targeted at youth are more likely to succeed if they associate themselves with extraordinary experiences; however brands targeted at older people can succeed more by associating themselves with everyday ordinary experiences.
  8. Beyond brands, this highlights which sort of experiences may be more crucial to have at different stages of life for optimizing happiness. If you are older perhaps savoring is the way to go. If you are younger perhaps more risk-taking, adventurous and seize-the-day sort of activities are to be prioritized.
  9. This can also be related to my last research summary on costs and benefits of consuming. The extraordinary and ordinary experiences are related to what Mihaly called experiential needs- it is instructive to note that they arise from a  self-definition process and are likely just another form of either satisfying the need for self-esteem or self-actualization: that is this is who I am and these are experiences that validate it.
  10. A few notes about methodology. The authors performed eight studies in total. In most of them, they asked participants to recall a recent extraordinary or ordinary experience (in one study they used the last Facebook status update ), and then asked the participants to rate the experience on different dimensions like amount of happiness felt etc.  The methodology is not without its own challenges and limitations and as the results are mostly correlational, should be interpreted with caution.

So what is the final takeaway? Prioritize experiences over material purchases,  and even among them prioritize rare experiences when young and more common everyday experiences when old. If your interest has been piqued, check the original article here.

Research Summaries: Costs and Benefits of Consuming

I am toying around with a new idea of providing research summaries for a few select articles that I read and find interesting. Do let me know if you find them useful. The idea is that one could read the research summary to get a good idea about the paper and then decide to dig deeper into the original source if one’s interest has been piqued sufficiently. The research summaries would be short and neither a substitute for the original article nor a copy n paste of the abstract.

So here is the first of the research summaries. The paper is Costs and Benefits of Consuming by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and you can read it here.

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mi...

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big ideas:

  1. Most consumer behavior, like eating a steak, creates some entropy in the world. The world moves from more organization (energy captured in creating and processing steak) to less organization (waste products after the steak has been digested). This entropy increase is directed at, and matched by, fulfillment of the needs of the consumer. However the energy/entropy gained by consumer, by satisfaction of needs, is typically less than the energy/entropy lost by objects of consumption; hence the need to assess and balance the costs and benefits of consumption.
  2. If the entire world consumed at levels of that found in US/ Western Europe, it will take two more earth sized planets to fulfill those energy needs; hence the importance of the issue at hand.
  3. Consumer needs can be classified into two buckets: those that are existential in nature and arise from basic needs common to all humans, which need to be fulfilled; and experiential needs which are related to ‘killing of time’ or filling the void of doing nothing, by consuming and thus focusing consciousness on something external.
  4. Existential needs can be further broken up based on Mas low’s hierarchy of needs. While survival and safety needs may be essential for proper functioning and thus justified; love and belonging needs of ‘keeping up with Joneses’ or self-esteem needs satisfied by having material possessions like a Ferrari car are more questionable. Self-actualization needs, by emphasizing growth and mastery, may not lead to much consumer behavior.
  5. Experiential needs arise form a need to keep consciousness focused on a goal directed activity; around 30 % of the time , college teens spend time in a zone where they have ‘nothing to do’. Rumination, and depression/ despair can set in if the consciousness turns inwards and cannot find a suitable external goal to focus on (an idea I am uncomfortable with)- consuming behavior, like shopping, may be one way out of the situation.
  6. There are many negative relations between money and happiness; one such is if you are consuming an energy rich object (like a magazine) as compared to a less-energy object (like a book) you are more likely to be happier reading a book (less energy product) than a magazine (a high energy product); there is a strong negative relation between energy consumption and happiness among women.
  7. He exhorts us to move towards an economy characterized by people consuming less and still maintaining the complexity like a chef, poet, musician etc. He also reiterates the research showing how material consumption does not lead to happiness.

Overall a pretty good morning read. I found this passage particularly resonating and beautiful:

Craftspersons, chefs, athletes, musicians, dancers, teachers, gardeners, artists, healers, poets—these are the workers creating goods that increase human well-being without degrading the complexity of the world. Is it impossible to develop an economy based on a majority of workers of this kind? Where consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the breakdown of matter? Let us hope this transition is not impossible, because otherwise the future looks grim indeed. And if the transition does come about, the Journal of Consumer Research will be filled with articles about music, art, poetry, and dance—the creative energy of the new economy.

And this passage is timely reminder indeed, and the reason I am writing this post is to disseminate widely the costs of rampant consumerism, without the corresponding hypothesized benefits:

We already know that material possessions alone do not improve the quality of life. We know that excessive concern for material goals is a sign of dissatisfaction with life. We know that trying to avoid the mental chaos of everyday life by resorting to acquisitions and passive entertainment does not work very well. Yet we insist in the vain hope that we can achieve happiness through consumption—regardless of consequences. Certainly one of the greatest services that consumer research can do for humankind is to document these realities, and diffuse them to as wide a public as possible.

Hope you liked the summary; you can read the full text here.

The Four Major Goals of Life revisited

I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life

A Good Dog Can Bring Happiness to Your Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.

Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.

To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.

Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.

Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.

How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:

  1. Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
  2. Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
  3. Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
  4. Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)

Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values )  needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between.  If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.

Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!

Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful  relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone-   this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .

in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!

PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.

Happier @ Work

I maintain a separate blog at Flourish Mentoring, which is dedicated to positive psychology based leadership and educational engagement topics. There I recently posted a series of 10 blog posts that are designed as mini-lessons (between 600-800 word each), all focused on being happier @ work.

I’m cross posting the links from that course here. Hope you enjoy reading the ten mini-lessons and are able to apply it to your work life.

Collected below are links to all the ten mini-lessons:

  1. Why Happiness (at Work)
  2. Helpful tips to be happier @ work
  3. Creating a positive, gratitude filled culture
  4. Finding meaning in work
  5. Orientation towards work and job crafting
  6. Remaining motivated at work
  7. Optimistic and Positive attitude
  8. Setting powerful goals
  9. Discovering and deploying strengths at work
  10. Leading positively

Do let me know how you liked the posts and whether you would like to see more of such themed collection of posts in the future?

ABCD and the Existential Givens

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology whereby I parse phenomena along 4 dimensions- Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Drive/Dynamic in nature.

I have also posted elsewhere about the four major goals of life. To recap, I believe that all humans are driven by these four major goals- Happiness, Success, Meaning and Integrity. If the parallels to ABCD are not obvious let me make it explicit.

The route to Happiness is via maximizing Positive Affect and minimizing negative Affect. Success is achieved by actively indulging in Behavior and by being engaged with the task at hand; Meaning is cognitively constructed and Integrity or morality at its core is about motivations or Drives.

All the above is more or less situated in the positive psychology paradigm, and the new Positive Psychology 2.0 looks beyond positivity to include existential concerns.

Now, I have been fascinated by the existential philosophy for quite some time, and have also explored its application to psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom etc. As per Yalom, we all must face up and try to resolve these four existential givens: Death, Isolation, Freedom/ responsibility; and Meaninglessness. All these are facts of life and we have to come to terms with them.

Death is inevitable; we can never truly get into the skin of the other, so existential loneliness also has to be dealt with; we are free to choose how to respond and that places a heavy burden of responsibility on us- we have to take ownership for our actions/ inaction;  finally given the cosmological perspective, our lives are perhaps meaningless- if anything we are burdened with providing an essence to our life(existence) , rather than otherwise.

Existential thinking is heavy stuff; but I guess all of us, start pondering such questions even when we are a small child; and continue revisiting them again and again, refining our tentative answers and resolutions to questions like these.

In the British school of existential therapy (cooper/Van Deurzen), these givens are seen as predictable tensions and paradoxes of the four dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms (Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Überwelt).

I find that fascinating. To me there appear to be two dimensions- one personal (Freedom/responsibility) vs interpersonal/ social (Isolation/ loneliness)  and the other Material/ physical (Death/ finitude/ embodiment) vs Spiritual/ psychological ( Meaninglessness/Un-Known). One has a focus on self , the other focus on others; the third a focus on the physical world, while the fourth is concerned with the spiritual realm.

And its easy to relate it to the ABCD/Four major goals of life:

The thoughts about Death (Physical) lead to embodied affective responses that can impact Happiness. Your behavior with others, whether you are able to connect authentically or not, determines your existential Isolation and loneliness (interpersonal) The interpersonal domain is also where you are able to taste your true Success/ Status. The drive towards personal Responsibility and freedom (personal) makes you moral and retain integrity. The recognition of oneself as a being striving for meaning, and impact in the real world, makes you paradoxically a spiritual person.

I like this marriage of Positive psychology and Existential Psychology and wish more and more people are driven towards the PP2.0 movement!

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