Variety and motivation: The crux to lasting happiness
Most people seek lasting happiness but only a few are aware of the fact that false expectations and a tedious lifestyle can speed up the disappearance of happiness. In this blog post, I explain how exciting activities and motivation may curb the dwindling of happiness.
Nowadays, if we take into account the unprecedented number of published articles, self-help books and the like, one easily gets the impression that happiness has become a Holy Grail towards which each and everyone is striving. Many people are convinced that if they have a lot of money, if a prestigious graduate school accepts them, if they find the perfect job or find the perfect partner, they will attain a state of happiness that will last for the rest of their life. But is it true that attaining all of these wishes and goals would guarantee an utterly fulfilling and happy life? If this is true, why does happiness appear to fade over time once we obtain something that we desired?
For starters, we tend to overestimate our feelings following the attainment of a desirable goal. A study by Dunn, Wilson, and Gilbert (2003) demonstrated that people engage in a so-called impact bias, causing them to overestimate the magnitude, as well as the duration, of their affect. In their study, they asked first-year college students to estimate their level of happiness if they were assigned to more or less desirable housing. After one and two years of living in certain housing, the students were again asked about their level of happiness. In line with the researchers’ expectations, students overestimated their level of happiness when living in a desirable house and overestimated how unhappy they would be living in the undesirable housing.
These findings are hardly surprising. Just ask yourself, how would you feel if you won unlimited international travel for a year? My initial expectations would be intense and enduring happiness, as I assume many of you who enjoy travelling would respond similarly. We see in this moment only the positive sides, such as watching how the sky turns orange while the sun goes down. Maybe we also imagine how we would hike through a gigantic rainforest far from any civilization or how indigenous tribes might invite us to stay in their village. But in our initial reaction, we tend to neglect thinking about important factors that make our everyday lives pleasant, like our friends and family or our own comfortable bed. In other words, we seem to know what makes us happy but we do not take into account that our expectations may sometimes be too narrow.
Does this mean that no matter what we do, we will have to accept the temporary nature of happiness no matter what we do? Arguably, a person’s chronic level of happiness is to a great extent genetically determined and, therefore, difficult to change (e.g. Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Yet, there is more to chronic happiness than just genes. In fact, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) argue that the magnitude of happiness is determined by three factors: a genetically-determined set point, life circumstances and intentional activities. Similar to the set point, there are certain life conditions (e.g. cultural norms, divorce, loss of a close relative or friend) that leave an impression on the person’s psyche and are more resistant towards change. In contrast, intentional activities – which can be either cognitive or behavioral in nature - are not only modifiable, but can have a substantial influence on people’s level of happiness. In other words, they offer a perfect target for boosting happiness.
But why should intentional activities help sustain happiness? Intentional activities such as helping out a friend, doing exercise or visualizing a beautiful midsummer night, have a clearly defined beginning and end-state. As such, intentional activities are not permanent but rather temporal (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Activities such as these bear the advantage that you can vary the way you execute them including their frequency, duration or quantity (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013). Let’s take, for instance, the preparation for a marathon. When you set up a running schedule you may intersperse your run with some sprints in order to improve your speed and endurance. In addition, you may choose to go running every second day and add some longer runs during the weekend. Variety in this whole planning scheme is a key feature that does not only prevent your performance from stagnating at a certain level but it also protects the whole training from becoming dull and uninteresting (e.g. Sheldon, Boehm, & Lyubomirsky, 2012). Similarly, any other activity that you enjoy and makes you happy can be varied and by doing so, you can slow down the process of ‘adapting’ and thus, sustain your happiness.
Importantly, it is not enough to do simply something and thereby, hope that you will remain happy. Rather, what you also need is motivation. Probably, you may know this from yourself; if you lack motivation you will invest less effort and sooner or later lose enjoyment in the things you do. How powerful motivation can be was recently shown in a study by Lyubomirsky, Dickerhoof, Boehm, and Sheldon (2011). Following a two-month intervention consisting of writing gratitude letters or stories about a future ideal self, those participants who self-selected themselves into the experiment and were therefore motivated to participate, experienced the biggest boosts in happiness. The most remarkable outcome was that these boosts in happiness were still observable after six months. These findings highlight that in order to reap persistent benefits from pleasurable activities motivation is necessary.
So, what can we conclude? To avoid the force of hedonic adaptation, bring in variability into your life. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the more motivated you are the longer you will remain happy.
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