Tuesday 5 August 2014

Is happiness about managing your expectations?

Me and my friend, Karl - DEFINITELY happy - could it be the ale?

I've seen various formulae for happiness over the years, some more evidence-based than others. Today another one was presented and I'll get to that in a wee while.

One I regularly speak about featured in Martin Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness. Published a dozen years ago now, it reflected happiness research at that time. The formula was:

H = S + C + V

.. where H is Happiness, S is Set range, C is Circumstances and; V represents factors under our Voluntary Control.

Seligman discribed V as the most important issue in Positive Psychology because these were things influencing our happiness that we could genuinely do something about. Of course, perceived control is a huge issue in stress management and resilience.

Focus your attention and effort on what you can control and you'll be less stressed and more resilient. It's good stress management advice.

A bit of background on the other two factors though because they're important. The S (Set range) aspect comes from evidence suggesting we all have a 'set range' for happiness. We're all on what's been described as an 'hedonic treadmill'.

When something good or bad happens (and it can be very good or very bad), over time our happiness reverts back to where it generally is. So, we're thinking about buying a new car. The anticipation brings us pleasure. And when we buy it, we're really happy and showing it off to our friends and learning about all its gizmos that we'll never use and driving for the sake of it. And we may even go through a spell of actually washing it! But sadly and quite quickly our new car happiness fades. Soon enough it's just a car like any other car and meantime our insurance has gone up...

No surprise too that our circumstances (C) should influence happiness and this is where the lines between psychology, philosophy and economics can become blurred. There are some big factors or 'circumstances' linked to happiness like money, marriage, age, health and religion. There's some fascinating research related to each of these circumstances. Recently governments too have become more engaged in this area of research, realizing that it isn't simply about people's wealth (which arguably is in decline now anyway) but more about promoting 'wellbeing'. What we can probably say is that your circumstances will influence happiness and wellbeing in some important ways (especially if they are, or have been, very bad).

Back though to today's happiness formula, from a recently published paper. This formula is mainly about momentary happiness, how you feel 'now' and what influences that. For what it's worth, here's the formula...

No, I couldn't work it out either, but that doesn't matter.

This research, using a gambling game methodology to test their model, predicted that happiness at a specific time is related to / predicted by certain rewards (CR), expected values / expectations (EV), and the difference between experienced and predicted rewards (RPE).

Here's the gist - our expectations are more important to our current happiness than many of us realize. How happy we are at a moment in time has less to do with how things are going at that time than whether they are going better (or worse) than expected.

So the implications (my interpretation) on the face of it could be: "If you want to be happier you have to manage your expectations."

I can hear the pessimists (me included) shouting that they were right all along. Expect the worst, then anything else is a bonus! (Certainly, that works for me on the golf course.) But it's clear from this research that things aren't as straightforward as that. For example, before the outcome (of the gamble), people with more positive expectations are happier.

And in real life, with it's much longer-term outcomes, marriage for example, you just don't know what the outcome is going to be do you? Therefore, the model predicts that it's probably better for your happiness 'now' to have higher expectations about the 'outcome' of your marriage.

This is very interesting and suggests two very different ways of thinking about 'how to be happy' depending on whether you're thinking about shorter-term, day-to-day, living or longer-term, important, life outcomes.

Marriage is a bit heavy. So back to golf...


 I'm standing on the 6th tee with a 30 mile-an-hour. left-to-right cross wind. Trouble (large shrubbery) on the left. Thick, impenetrable rough (known locally as 'bundi') on the right. No point whatsoever in thinking I'm going to hit this to the middle of the green because when it leaks to the right into said bundi, I'm going to be very disappointed and may indeed say bad words. Better to have no expectations and accept this is a difficult shot on a terrible day. If by some miracle it subsequently lands on the green (positive outcome!), expectations are surpassed by a large margin - happiness ensues.


Thinking about my overall golf game (a.k.a marriage)... In this situation, better to have optimism (hope, faith?) that my game can indeed improve and it's worth therefore putting in the effort to improve swing, eliminate catastrophic slice etc. This positive expectation makes me happier.

And indeed I am thinking.. why on earth I am sitting here blogging when I could be out there on this sunny, Scottish Summer's day, hitting the perfect shot to the 6th and holing the putt for a birdie (oops, getting ahead of myself again; unhappiness and disappointment is round the corner - better get back to work!)

Short-term realism, long-term hope - a possible recipe for a happier life?

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