Being More than Just Satisfied
Even if you are presently satisfied with your life, and most people say they are, you probably would like to be more than just satisfied. One of the things we know about positive emotions is that they produce as well as reflect desirable outcomes. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory, positive emotions affect both personal and interpersonal domains. Positive emotions:
- broaden attention and thinking
- encourage higher-level and creative thinking
- build cognitive, social, and physical resources
- are key components of resilience
People who experience more positive emotion also experience more optimism and calmness, and they tend to increase mental health and close relationships.
One of the challenges of both staying happy and becoming happier, though, is the hedonic treadmill, the tendency for people to adapt to experiences and return to their happiness set points. This appears to be most true of pleasure-seeking, which thus by itself is not a viable approach to either maintaining or increasing happiness.
Can You Be Too Happy?
Oishi, Diener and Lucas have found that it is possible to be too happy, depending on what you are trying to achieve. For instance, if your goal is close relationships, then being very happy is optimal. If instead you want success in income or education, being moderately happy is probably just right. Just a slight amount of dissatisfaction can lead to achievement motivation, which might mean learning, achieving, and earning more. Note that you will still want to be happier than average, and that means you will be subject to the hedonic treadmill and happiness adaptation. Wouldn’t you like to be in more control of this?
Broadening and Building Life Satisfaction
Michael Cohn, Barbara Fredrickson, and colleagues found that loving kindness meditation can undo hedonic adaptation. In the original study published in 2008, they conducted a seven-week intervention with adults in a workplace setting.
People who meditated increased positive emotion and built personal resources including mindfulness, pathways thinking, savoring of the future, environmental mastery, and self-acceptance. They also increased their purpose in life, enhanced social support received, improved positive relationships with others, and decreased illness and depression symptoms.
The Exciting Follow-up: People Stay Happier
In a follow-up study by Cohn and Fredrickson conducted 15 months later and published just recently, people who had continued to meditate also continued to increase their positive emotions and personal resources. Interestingly though, regardless of whether participants continued to meditate (or what kind of meditation they practiced), all participants maintained gains in positive emotion found when they were interviewed at the end of the intervention, even when assessed more than a year later.
Cohn and Fredrickson suggest that because of the focus on mindful attention, the active, personalized, and adjustable elements, and the broad application of these skills and insights to many life domains, meditation practices have many benefits. Among these are
- Increases in positive emotion and approach behavior
- More robust and effective immune responses
- Increases in inter-personal emotions such as empathy and compassion
Benefits from meditation accumulate and persist. They can go on even through days without meditation practice.
You Can Learn to Meditate
Initially many participants in the original study were less happy, but after they got past the first challenging days of restlessness, boredom, or doubt, the upward trajectory from meditating was clear. Loving kindness meditation had substantial and lasting good effects on health and life satisfaction.
Meditate for Success
It’s not too early to begin thinking about your New Year’s Resolutions! Meditation can help you reach your goals since it outpaces the hedonic treadmill.
Here are just a few of the possible outcomes of being happier identified by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others:
- higher job performance assessments
- higher incomes even years after measuring a person’s happiness
- higher satisfaction with close relationships
- better physical health
- longer life
I have practiced meditation regularly for over ten years. I meditate in the morning to start my day relaxed and clear-headed, especially before a challenging meeting where I will need to be proactive rather than reactive. I meditate before a business trip and find I am both more relaxed and more energized when I get off the plane. In the evening I meditate to let the stress of the day blow past like so many clouds. It is challenging to learn to meditate but the mindfulness that you develop is worth the first few weeks of wondering when it is ever going to work. Try it! -SF
Cohn, M.A. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2010). In search of durable positive psychology interventions: Predictors and consequences of long-term positive behavior change. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 5: 355 – 366.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95: 5, 1045–1062.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2009). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? In E.Diener, (ed), The science of well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener. New York: Springer.
Waugh, C.E., Fredrickson, B.L., Taylor, S.F. (2008). Adapting to life’s sling’s and arrows: Individual differences in resilience when recovering from an anticipated threat. Journal of Research in Personality.