[Paleopsych] Psychology Today: Happy Hour

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Happy Hour

[First the summary from The Chronicle of Higher Education.]


A glance at the February issue of "Psychology Today":
Training our minds to be happy

Living in the present may be the key to happiness, says Carlin 
Flora, a staff writer at the magazine. "Our sense of well-being 
is intimately tied into our perception of time," she says.

Age also makes a difference, she says, citing research by a 
professor of psychology at Stanford University. The professor, 
Laura Carstensen, has found that younger people focus more on 
the negative, while older people release bad feelings faster and 
maintain good ones longer.

"Carstensen thinks this shift toward the positive occurs because 
as we age, we become aware, consciously or not, that time is 
running out," Ms. Flora writes. "The awareness of life's 
fragility turns our attention to the present moment, so we worry 

Ms. Carstensen is also investigating how Buddhist meditation, 
which involves an intense focus on the present, may affect the 

Ms. Flora also cites research on that topic by Richard Davidson, 
a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at 
Madison. Mr. Davidson's research, she says, shows that Buddhist 
monks who spent more than 10,000 hours meditating had 
significantly more activity in a part of the brain that is 
associated with positive emotions than they did in a similar 
part of the brain associated with negative emotions.

"The finding suggests," Ms. Flora says, "that if we train 
ourselves to become more mindful and slow down our sense of 
passing time, we can learn to monitor our moods and thoughts 
before they spiral downward. We can, in other words, make 
ourselves happier."

The article, "Happy Hour," is online at 

    Happy Hour
    By: [4]Carlin Flora
    Summary: We search for happiness in eager anticipation and joyful
    memories, but we're better off paying attention to each moment as it

    Jason Carpenter was one of those Red Sox fans--determined, passionate
    and absolutely convinced that a World Series win would be a
    life-changing event. The baseball team famously botched an easy win
    during the 1986 championships, and Carpenter, 13 at the time, broke
    down in sobs. Yet he never gave up on his dream: that the Red Sox
    would one day prove they deserved his unwavering devotion. "I imagined
    crying with happiness," he says. Last fall, Carpenter, now 31 and
    living in New York City, saw his dream come true when his team beat
    the Yankees--their blood rivals--in the league championships, after
    the biggest comeback in baseball history. Carpenter was over the moon.
    "I went nuts with 200 of my closest 'strangers,' all displaced Boston
    fans, partying in the streets deep in the heart of enemy territory
    until 4 a.m."

    With the next morning, though, came the darker side of triumph.
    Carpenter's elation had worn off. "I was wondering what to do with
    myself. I was depressed." Years of longing for a win had boiled down
    to a fleeting moment of bliss. What Carpenter had believed his whole
    life would make him happy actually happened--and then he

    The things we expect will bring us lasting joy rarely do. Whether it's
    losing 25 pounds, getting a major promotion or watching a troupe of
    perennial losers finally win the big one, long-anticipated events give
    us a swell of glee...and then we settle back into being just about as
    happy as we've always been. Most of us have a happiness "set point,"
    fixed by temperament and early life experience, which is very
    difficult to shift. Whether you win the lottery or wind up in a
    wheelchair, within a year or two you generally end up just about as
    happy (or unhappy) as you started out.

    Yet the quest for happiness isn't futile. Psychologists now believe
    that many of us can turn the well-being thermostat up or down a few
    notches by changing how we think about anticipation, memory and the
    present moment. Our sense of well-being is intimately tied into our
    perception of time. The problem is that we usually get it wrong.
    Memory tricks us--we don't remember our experiences properly, and that
    leaves us unable to accurately imagine the way we'll feel in the
    future. At the same time, expectations mislead us: We never learn to
    predict what will make us happy, or how to anticipate the impact of
    major life experiences.

    Focusing on the moment may help us understand how to be happy.
    Besides, we have a built-in tendency to grow more cheerful as we get
    older: Aging helps us ignore the negative and shift our attention
    toward the positive. Finding happiness isn't hopeless--it seems to be
    just a question of time.

    Youth is a downer, it turns out. Young people naturally pay more
    attention to the negative. Older people are faster than younger people
    to orient to smiling faces rather than scowling ones in
    advertisements, finds Linda Carstensen, a professor of psychology at
    Stanford who studies how age influences time perception and goals.
    Similarly, young people are quicker to pick up on negative stimuli.
    This youthful attention to the bad may be a necessary part of growing
    up--a cognitive mechanism that helps with survival. Since the young
    are focused on new (and therefore possibly dangerous) experiences and
    acquaintances, they may be more likely to put themselves in harm's
    way. "Young people need to take risks, and as such, they need to pay
    attention to the potentially negative, to recognize the lion or bear
    that is going to jump out at them," Carstensen explains. As we grow
    older, though, we are increasingly drawn to the familiar, like close
    friends and relatives. If given a chance to meet either their favorite
    author or a close friend for lunch, younger people chose the former,
    while older people preferred the latter.

    Carstensen's findings shatter the stereotype of seniors as a crabby
    bunch. When she spent one week frequently monitoring the moods of 184
    adults, aged 18 to 94, she saw that older people experienced highly
    positive emotional experiences for longer periods of time than younger
    people, and their highly negative emotional experiences subsided more
    quickly. In other research, she showed that their memories were in
    general more positive. The sunny habit of revising history may explain
    why seniors tend not to wallow in bad moods: Pleasant memories are
    always invading their thoughts, and these fond recollections may "wash
    away" anger or sadness. "There is no empirical evidence that older
    people are grouchy," she says, although personality studies have
    revealed that they do tend to care less about what other people think
    of them.

    Carstensen thinks this shift toward the positive occurs because as we
    age, we become aware, consciously or not, that time is running out.
    The awareness of life's fragility turns our attention to the present
    moment, so we worry less. The potential missteps and possible
    catastrophes that cloud a young person's vision of the future fade
    away. "If you think about the things you worry about ---getting a job,
    finding a mate or an apartment--they are almost always concerns about
    the future," she says. The gap between ambition and achievement, a
    major source of stress and unhappiness for young people, also narrows
    with age. As we get older, we either achieve our goals or replace them
    with more reachable aims.

    Older people's positivity bias can even boost their memories. The
    elderly generally do poorly on tests of short-term memory. But when
    Joseph Mikels, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford and
    researcher in Carstensen's lab, showed them joyful scenes of babies
    and puppies, older adults demonstrated better visual memory than their
    younger counterparts. He theorizes that they are able to overcome
    their cognitive handicaps because they are highly motivated to
    remember images that match up with their personal goals of fostering
    warm relationships.

    These cheerful habits of mind can also be adopted by young people,
    especially when a chapter of life is coming to a close. Think of
    getting ready to move to a new city. Annoyances or grudges toward
    local friends recede; memories of good times flood your mind. Your
    awareness that your time with them is finite pushes the things you'll
    miss about them to the foreground, and the present moment comes more
    clearly into focus. Mikels says that conjuring this state of mind,
    simply by appreciating life's brevity, could help young people find
    the contentment that comes more naturally to their elders.

    Carstensen and her team are now studying Buddhist meditators, to see
    how their practice alters their perception of time. Her theory is that
    meditation may cultivate a mind-set similar to an old person's, since
    it shuts out thoughts of the past and the future in favor of the
    present. "The religion is centered around the fact that we could die
    at any moment," she says.

    Related research by psychologist Richard Davidson at the University of
    Wisconsin has in fact shown that meditation may change how the brain
    works. He measured brain activity in people who had finished eight
    weeks of meditation training and found significantly more activity in
    the left prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive feelings
    and pursuit of goals. More recently, Davidson traveled to India to
    measure the brain activity of Buddhist monks who had each spent at
    least 10,000 hours in meditation. The activity in their left
    prefrontal cortex far exceeded that in their right prefrontal cortex,
    which is the brain's home for negative emotions and anxiety. Most of
    us don't have 10,000 free hours to devote to brain resculpturing. But
    the finding suggests that if we train ourselves to become more mindful
    and slow down our sense of passing time, we can learn to monitor our
    moods and thoughts before they spiral downward. We can, in other
    words, make ourselves happier.

    In the quest for happiness, most of us try to guess what the future
    might bring, then project our current selves--with all of our hopes,
    quirks and predilections--into that unknown. We use a fuzzy image of
    the future to make all kinds of decisions, whether it's what to make
    for dinner or whom to marry. Those predictions are essential to
    happiness--and they are almost always wrong, finds Daniel Gilbert,
    professor of psychology at Harvard. As a result, our efforts to
    improve our lives often fall flat.

    Working with Tim Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of
    Virginia, Gilbert has shown that we are remarkably bad at "affective
    forecasting," or predicting how we'll feel in the future. The good
    things are never as good as we imagine they'll be; the bad things are
    never as bad. We think of ourselves as both more fragile and more
    easily satisfied than we really are. We overestimate the impact of a
    good turn of event: We think that a fresh career or a new relationship
    will permanently change us, when all it does is provide a short-term
    mood boost. On the other hand, we are also much more resilient than we
    give ourselves credit for. Most of us do recover emotionally from
    life's traumas, whether it's the death of a close friend or a bitter

    "Memory is a flawed partner to anticipation," explains Gilbert. "If I
    ask you to remember a terrorist attack, you will instantly think of
    Sept. 11, not because it's a prototypical act of terrorism but because
    it's so unrepresentative." But if your memory provides you with the
    example of Sept. 11 as a representative for all terrorist attacks,
    you're very likely to mispredict how you'll feel in response to future
    attacks. You expect that you will feel the way you did after Sept. 11,
    yet because the vast majority of terrorist attacks are very small and
    involve the loss of relatively few lives, you would probably be a lot
    less upset and recover more quickly. The bright side to forecasting
    errors like this is that they expose our built-in psychological immune
    system, as Gilbert calls it, which ensures we will survive future
    horrors we can't predict.

    There are many other reasons why we have such trouble imagining how
    we'll feel in the future: We don't account for our own internal
    spin-room, the rationalization techniques we use to explain away bad
    situations. ("She wasn't right for me anyway.") We also tend to
    anticipate the most dramatic symbol of a future event. If it's a
    promotion, for example, we fantasize about the moment the boss breaks
    the news. What we forget is that life goes on after the congratulatory
    handshake--there will still be a job to do, a commute to endure and a
    family to raise.

    Even simple choices between concrete alternatives are plagued by
    forecasting errors, shows Christopher Hsee, an economist from the
    University of Chicago. As a result, we have a hard time picking the
    job, the house or the car that will make us happiest. That's because
    there is a big difference between the criteria we use to choose
    something and the criteria we use to evaluate it later. If, for
    example, you're hemming and hawing over whether to buy a
    top-of-the-line camera that is bulky and heavy or a second-best model
    that's easier to carry, the comparative difference in picture quality
    may steer you toward the unwieldy model. Once you get the fancy camera
    home, though, you no longer have the lesser-quality photo to compare
    it with. All you notice is that it's a hassle to lug around--and as a
    result you barely use it. A better strategy is to try to get a
    holistic impression of each experience or product you're
    contemplating, Hsee says. Just consider the first camera and imagine
    how it would be to use it, without immediately comparing it with the

    Gilbert has another solution to the prediction problem: asking other
    people for advice. "Grandmothers, rabbis and philosophers have been
    telling us for years that we shouldn't want shiny new things, but it's
    impossible not to," he says. "The important lesson is to learn how to
    predict more accurately what will give us lasting pleasure versus
    short-term pleasure, because there are things from the mundane to the
    transcendental that really do bring pleasure and happiness." His
    remedy is surrogation, or quite simply, asking people who have already
    done what you're considering doing how they liked it. "Most of the
    futures you're contemplating are someone else's memory," he says.
    While it helps to have a lot in common with a "surrogate," even a
    randomly chosen person can probably give you a better estimate of how
    much you would enjoy an experience than would your own impulses.

    Yet few people are willing to use this technique. To his dismay,
    Gilbert's research shows that people would rather close their eyes and
    imagine a vacation spot, or a new job, than ask someone what that
    holiday or that career was like for them. This is because although we
    are remarkably similar in our emotional reactions to events, we like
    to think of ourselves as unique, Gilbert says. We can correct our
    forecasting errors, but at a high cost to our self-image--we would
    rather be original than happy.

    Psychologist Daniel Kahneman grew up near the Bois de Bologne in
    Paris, and from time to time, his parents would take him on a trip to
    the woods. Young Danny, engrossed in some other activity, would scream
    bloody murder at the prospect of being interrupted. Yet once he got to
    the woods, he'd get so involved in his play that when it was time to
    go home, he'd cry again. For Kahneman, those fits of tears are proof
    that he was a happy child. "When you don't want to stop what you're
    doing, that's a happy condition," he says. "There is something sad
    about people who live their lives wanting to be elsewhere."

    Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his insights in
    irrationality and decision-making, but has since turned his attention
    to well-being. That has led him to study the value of time, "the
    ultimate finite resource." He's examining the difference between
    immediate and remembered experience and has zeroed in on the fact that
    our actual experience and our memories of life operate on separate
    tracks, and affect our happiness in completely distinct ways. Most
    psychologists who study happiness have focused on how we think of our
    lives in retrospect, but Kahneman believes that there's a lot to be
    learned from looking at "online" happiness--or how we feel in the

    Because our memories are all we keep of our experiences, we have a
    built-in bias that favors memory over immediate experience. Our
    experiencing self, the part of us that registers events as they happen
    without anticipation or reflection, doesn't have much of a voice in
    influencing how happy we are with our lives, he says. Instead, memory
    dominates. Imagine you've thrown a marvelous party. You've spent hours
    reveling, but just as the night is winding down, two drunk guests get
    into a vicious argument. Even though your pleasure during the
    preceding hours was real, you will remember the event as a total

    That spoiled night is a clear example of the "evaluating self" at
    work, explains Kahneman. To create a narrative out of life's thousands
    of disconnected moments, our evaluating self focuses on the most
    intense moments and the final moments of an experience. That's the way
    we're built, but our tendency to rely mostly on memory to judge our
    well-being can lead us to make counterproductive decisions that
    undermine our own happiness.

    For instance, many parents believe they'd be happier if they spent
    more time with their children. But because spending more time together
    might not raise the intensity or change the concluding moments of the
    experience, it won't be reflected in rosier memories. "If you double
    the time that you spend with your children, it may have very little
    effect on what you will remember about that time," Kahneman says. If
    memory is all that matters, spending additional time with your
    children accomplishes nothing. Another example: You had a great time
    on summer vacation in Italy last year, so you consider going back. But
    since returning to the same place wouldn't give you many new memories
    to savor, your evaluating self might decide against it--even though
    your experiencing self would clearly enjoy the trip.

    "The point is that we shouldn't measure our lives on the quality of
    our memories alone," says Kahneman. He doesn't simply mean we should
    be more spontaneous--in fact, he points out that since time is our
    most valuable resource, we should pay careful attention to how we
    spend it. We need to vigilantly protect our time from the biases of
    our evaluating self by not relying on memory alone. Otherwise, we risk
    wasting it in ways that contradict our values and don't bring us

    Well-being is also a product of "focal time," or how we direct our
    attention. This is the key idea behind the different roles that
    pleasures and comforts have in creating happiness, a distinction
    originally posited by the late Stanford economist Tibor Scitovsky.
    Comforts are objects or experiences we tend to take for granted: a
    computer that doesn't crash, boots that don't leak or even a spouse
    who is supportive and warm. Pleasures, on the other hand, are stimuli
    that you focus your attention on: a good meal, a silky shirt, a
    boisterous evening with friends. The difference isn't intrinsic to the
    thing itself but rather lies in our attitude toward it: whether it
    captures our attention or recedes into the background.

    Our evaluating self misleads us by giving more weight to comforts,
    those things that make life easier, but that we become accustomed to.
    Our experiencing self, meanwhile, prefers pleasures--absorbing events
    or interactions that hold us captive. If you ask someone with a Lexus
    if she likes it, she'll probably say yes, since its high quality
    really does bring happiness. But that's only while she's thinking
    about it--and she probably doesn't think about it very often. "Suppose
    you are driving in your car with your spouse and you are quarreling,"
    Kahneman posits. "Are you better off if you're driving an Escort or a
    Lexus?" You're much too busy arguing to pay attention to the Lexus'
    smooth ride, so at that moment the quality of the car hardly matters.
    At the same time, something trivial that grabs your focus and
    interest, like getting flowers, will bring you happiness. If you got
    flowers every day, though, it would become routine, and neither garner
    your attention nor bring you much pleasure. Kahneman's point: Nothing
    is as important as it is when you're thinking about it.

    As he's explored the role of attention and moment-by-moment
    experiences in happiness, Kahneman has identified factors that have a
    powerful effect in determining immediate mood. When asked how they
    feel "in the moment," he's found that people report being happier when
    they are with friends than when they're with a spouse or child. It
    sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense: When we're with friends,
    we're intensely engaged, whereas we don't pay as much focused
    attention to family--they recede into the background, since we see
    them all the time. Similarly, getting enough sleep is crucial,
    probably because it is difficult to be engaged with the things you
    enjoy when you are tired. And people under time pressure at work don't
    report much happiness, as they are unable to pay attention to anything
    other than their impending deadlines.

    Kahneman acknowledges the power of the well-being "setpoint," but he
    still thinks that we can influence our own happiness in small ways--by
    attending to the moment, and by choosing activities that engage rather
    than numb our minds. If we heed what does give us immediate pleasure,
    and if we are skeptical of our error-riddled memories and predictions,
    we can learn to spend our money, time and attention in ways that make
    us happier. If it's simply our nature to root for a cursed team or to
    chase a dream that, when realized, will never be as sweet as it is in
    our mind's eye, then we can try to appreciate the joy that comes in
    the striving. PT

    Publication: Psychology Today Magazine
    Publication Date: Jan/Feb 2005
    Last Revised: 19 Jan 2005

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