In this season of list making, what’s on your list of what you really want? Happiness is likely to be at or near the top. We all want to be happy. Sometimes, happiness is a current state. Often, it’s a future state, as in “I’ll be happy when…”. If we’re perfectly honest (O.K., if I’m perfectly honest), sometimes setbacks are cited as the cause of our unhappiness. This shows up as “I’d be happy if it wasn’t for…”. Regardless of where we are on the happiness scale, the great news is that most of us can be happy, even if we’ve been dealt some bad breaks. Psychologists and social scientists have produced findings about happiness that we can all use to get there, despite our starting point.
Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia, is one of the researchers who explain how we create happiness. His book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, describes how to influence our happiness by editing the stories we tell ourselves. It offers several compelling examples, but one really stood out to me. What do we tell ourselves when things go badly?
Editing Our Stories About Setbacks
Wilson offers an example of the impact of our narratives using the greatest setback of all: early death. Suppose you were among a population that may carry a genetic marker for a disease that would kill you in middle age, but its symptoms would not appear until your thirties or forties. Do you want to know? How will this knowledge affect your happiness?
Wilson’s research followed a group of young adults who faced these questions. These young adults previously made a choice that placed in them into one of three groups:
A. took a genetic screen and learned that they carried the gene.
B. took a genetic screen and learned that they did not carry the gene.
C. refused to take the genetic screen; don’t know if they carry the gene.
Wilson studied each group to evaluate their happiness at three points: immediately after their decision, six months later, and one year later. Which group do you think reported being happiest? Which group was most unhappy?
The results surprised me. Group A – the group that got the bad news – was understandably the unhappiest immediately after the results. But, at six months and one year later, this group self reported happiness levels similar to those of Group B – the group who knew they did not have the gene. Even though members of one group got really good news and the other really bad news, after time, their self reported happiness levels were indistinguishable.
Perhaps the most surprising result is that the group members who were most unhappy over time were members of Group C- the group that chose not to know. Even though they reported happiness levels similar to Group B immediately after the decision, feelings of well-being deteriorated. Wilson reports that a year after the decision, group members who were uncertain about a bad outcome reported being more depressed and anxious than those who were certain of one.
This study offers conclusions for any of us who face setbacks far less ominous than early death. The secret to editing our stories is to find meaning and purpose in what happens to us. As Wilson states, “making sense of negative outcomes is the first step to recovering from them.” Those who knew for certain that they carried the marker had the certainty to come to terms with it. They created narratives about what their life could mean and a sense of urgency to make the most of it. They dedicated themselves to a purpose for their lives. Those who were uncertain didn’t have this framework for sense making; they lacked a basis to adapt and move on. Their narratives likely represented the anxieties of “What If’s” instead of “What Could Be’s.”
How To Be Happy After the Bad Stuff
Wilson suggests an approach to help us make the setbacks in our lives more understandable and predictable: the Pennebaker Writing technique or the “Step Back and Ask Why” approach. It’s simple, anyone has the tools to do it, and if you are like others in Wilson’s research, you’ll find that it works.
This writing exercise requires two conditions. First, enough time has passed between the bad experience and the present that you can think about it without being overwhelmed with negative emotions. Next, you can analyze why the event occurred instead of ruminating over the fact that it did occur.
Once you can get to this place, write about this experience for at least fifteen minutes on three to four consecutive days. Importantly, write about the experience as a dispassionate observer reporting on the experience, rather than rationalizing the case for your feelings. As Wilson states, “Don’t recount the event, take a step back, reconstruct and explain it.”
The Pay Off
If you get the same results as the research, you’ll find the basis of sense making: clarity and understanding. Wilson offers examples. College students who previously ruminated about a bad grade got the clarity that they didn’t prepare well, so had a better understanding of how to change study habits. Employees scarred by an ugly confrontation with a boss understood that difficulties in the boss’ life that produced the outsized response. This clarity and understanding changed perceptions about a negative event and created new narratives. Participants reported that they had fewer negative emotions, ruminated less and experienced less stress.
Happiness is the gift to give yourself this season. I hope you recount many blessings in what you tell yourself. (If you don’t talk to yourself, start now. Just be careful about what you say and don’t do it out loud in public.) But, the real opportunity is to change the way you talk about the bad stuff. Give it time, report it rather than ruminate, and write down what caused it to happen. Then move on. There’s too much good stuff ahead to be happy about.
Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.