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Friday, December 29, 2006

Have a Nice Day?

Are you happy? According to this article from Slate, that question is harder to answer than you might think.

[W]hen you ask people how happy they are, the answer you get will depend on whether the sun is shining or whether they have just found a dime on the floor. ([Psychologist Norbert] Schwarz used to plant coins where people would find them.)

That just shows how vulnerable people's views of their own satisfaction with life are. Kahneman argues that measures of life satisfaction are based on heavily edited memories of actual experiences. People recall the peaks, gloss over the troughs, and are influenced by recent events, including sunshine and serendipitous dimes. The kind of person who says she is happy with her life, then, is the kind of person who is experiencing lots of intense, positive emotion, even if there is a lot of anxiety thrown in there, too. High-powered city types remember the excitement of the deal but forget the misery of the long commute.

This theory intrigues me. Is it a bad thing if it's true? It sounds like people tend to focus on the joys in life and dismiss their hardships as momentary. That seems like an honorable and practical way to live. Considering the impact of the sunshine and the coins (both temporary circumstances) on the way people answer, it sounds like many of us gauge our happiness by living in the moment.

One thing the article doesn't mention is what happens when people step in a mudpuddle or have their wallets stolen right before they're asked whether they're happy. If sunshine and coins lead to happiness, where to wet clothes and empty pockets lead?

While we're on the subject of happiness, did you know that this fellow owns the smiley face?

[Image source:]


Hazel said...

I remember reading a study showing that holding a pencil in one's mouth horizontally triggers a feeling of happiness. Something about using smile muscles and muscle memory tricking one's brain. We are so easy!

Rob Robinson said...

Hmmm. I'll have to try that one. I have heard that smiling even when you don't feel like it can improve your mood. Thanks, Hazel.