The New Scientist reports that positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture.
Starting from an overview of how money does, and does not, influence happiness, the article then moves into Barbara Fredrickson’s research.
“One thing that is clear is that once life’s basics are paid for, the power of money to bring happiness is limited. In fact, it can be positively harmful to our sense of well-being. Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liège, Belgium, and colleagues recently asked a group of people to taste a piece of chocolate in their laboratory. They found that the wealthier members of the group spent less time savouring the experience, and reported enjoying the chocolate less than the subjects who weren’t so well off. The same was also true of one group in a separate experiment. This time, half the people had been primed with images of money before they tasted the chocolate. These participants enjoyed the tasting less than a group who had not seen the images, suggesting that just the thought of money is enough to stem our enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 759).
So just what is it that makes us happy? Happiness can take the form of many different positive emotions, and some hints of what makes us happy may come from work that questions why these emotions first evolved. The answer isn’t as obvious as it is in the case of negative emotions. These are clearly beneficial in the rough and tumble of survival: anger readies us to fight an opponent, fear makes us run away from danger, and disgust steers us away from contaminated foods and other sources of infection. Although there is no shortage of evidence that feelings of pleasure – obtained by finding a tasty meal or a sexy mate, for example – are important in rewarding and consolidating beneficial behaviours, it is harder to explain how the more diffuse positive emotions such as awe, hope or gratitude evolved.
This troubled psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so she started looking for evolutionary benefits that pleasure might confer. “I thought there must be more to it than this,” she recalls.
Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory proposes that happiness and similar positive states of mind improve our cognitive capacities while we are in safe situations, allowing us to build resources around us for the long term. That’s in marked contrast to the effects of negative emotions like fear, which focus our attention so we can deal with short-term problems. “Positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture,” Fredrickson argues.
Since she proposed it in 1998 in the Review of General Psychology (vol 2, p 300), her theory has gathered a wealth of experimental support. Eye-tracking and brain-imaging experiments, for example, have revealed that positive moods increase and broaden the scope of visual attention, helping the brain gather more information.
A happy solution
Feeling good has also been shown to improve people’s creativity and ability to solve problems. In one experiment, subjects were shown a video of comedy bloopers to lighten their mood, before being presented with a practical problem involving a box of matches, a box of tacks and a candle. They were told to attach the candle to a pinboard in such a way that wax didn’t drip on the floor (the solution is to use the matchbox as a plinth for the candle). The experimenters found that people who had viewed the comedy clips were more likely to solve the problem than controls who saw a mathematics documentary intended to put them in a more neutral mood (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 52, p 1122).
Other experiments have found that a good mood improves people’s verbal reasoning skills (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 383). And various studies have shown that when people are in a good mood, their social skills improve: they become more gregarious and trusting of others, and deal more constructively with criticism.”
Full article available on http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727791.000-how-to-be-happy-but-not-too-much.html