Friday, 7 November 2008

Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will

Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people's sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures.

This capacity to adapt to life circumstances and return to baseline levels of happiness has been dubbed the "hedonic treadmill", and while it is reassuring in the face of bad events, the implication for policy makers is that there is little they can do to improve the population's happiness.

According to Daniel Mochon and colleagues, however, this is not the full story. Mochon's team have tested the idea that whereas rare, massive events have no lasting effect on happiness, the cumulative effect of lots of little boosts may well have the power to influence happiness over the longer-term.

An initial study questioned the happiness of 2,095 participants as they were either entering or leaving a place of worship. Across 12 different religious denominations, the results were the same: those people questioned after a religious service were happier than those questioned before. Moreover, the more times a person said they'd attended a service in the last month (the average was four times), the happier they tended to be.

A second study found similar results for people attending a gym or yoga class. Again, those questioned on leaving were happier than those questioned on arrival. Moreover, the more times someone reported going to the gym in the last month, the happier they were.

"Our findings imply that, in contrast to the notion of an inescapable hedonic treadmill, it is not pointless for people to seek to improve their well-being," the researchers said. "However, improvement may not come from major events such as winning the lottery, despite the seemingly life-changing nature of such examples. Rather it seems like the key for long lasting changes to well-being is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."

So what are the policy implications for this new research? The researchers said single-shot events such as a tax cut will probably have little impact on people's happiness. By contrast, "policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."

ResearchBlogging.orgD MOCHON, M NORTON, D ARIELY (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being Journal of Economic Psychology, 29 (5), 632-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Seems like....people who go to church a lot are more likely to be those most happy there, whether when entering or leaving. Did they also ask the church-goers their happiness at midweek (assuming a weekend service)?

Anonymous said...

Are most people happier after being up for a few hours? After some singing? After having one's
existence OK'd by concrete implicit acceptance by others? After the effects of that post worship service coffee kick in?

Seems like some of those might apply at the gym as well, plus a sense of accomplishment. Do people get a sense of accomplishment from going to church? Perhaps a deposit in the collection plate feels empowering.

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