Stack of golden George Washington dollar coins,. (c) 2007 Bill Koslosky, MD (CC BY 2.5)

Finding a Dime Can Make Your Last Year Happier

Forrest ChristianCareers, Coaching, happiness, Motivation 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe, but if I set you up to find a dime and then ask you how happy your life was over the last year, you’re quite likely to report being happier than you would have if you hadn’t found the dime.

Odd, isn’t it?

I read about this little finding, which comes from the 1980s, while going through Dan Ariely’s research articles that make up the basis for this Predictably Irrational book. Schooler, Ariely and Loewenstein describe other findings that are related:

Although individuals may have some global sense of their overall degree of well-being, there is also considerable evidence that reports of global happiness can be powerfully influenced by the situational context in which individuals are queried. A famous example of the difficulty of judging one’s global happiness comes from the research of Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1998), who asked some college students how many times they had gone out on a date in the last month, then how happy they had been overall. Other students were asked the same questions but in the reverse order. For those asked about dates first, the correlation between the two items was 0.66; for those asked about happiness first, the correlation was close to zero. These results suggest that instead of recalling their hedonic state over the last month, the students seemed to be looking more for objective cues about whether their last month had been good or bad and attempted to judge their happiness based on those cues. When the information about dates was activated, it played a more prominent role int these evaluations. Additional studies have demonstrated that individuals’ general assessment of their happiness can be similarly biased by a number of other situational factors including, the current weather (Schwarz and Clore, 1983), finding a dime (Schwarz, 1987), and the outcome of soccer games (Schwarz et al., 1987).

SOURCE: Schooler, Jonathan W.; Ariely, Dan; and Loewenstein, George. 2003. “The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness can be Self-Defeating.” In The Psychology of Economic Decisions, I. Brocas and J. Carrillo, eds. (Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press) [image-based PDF]

There’s a lot for hidden high potentials to consider with this, and with the material in the rest of the article. Here’s a couple of starting points.

Smiling child. © 2008 E. Forrest Christian. All rights reserved.
Smiling child. © 2008 E. Forrest Christian. All rights reserved.

Memory, of course, isn’t a videotape of what happened. Memories are created and recreated each time we recall the event. Your brain actually overwrites the previous instance with the experience of the memory when you remember it. This is why you can brainwash people into thinking that things happened when they didn’t: you manipulate the memory so that when it is restored, it includes the things that didn’t happen. This is also why psychotherapies can work: they change the experience of the memory so that when it is re-stored it isn’t as powerful to you.

The upshot of these two things is that you can make the past happier than it was.

(Quick point here: Happiness and unhappiness are two entirely different emotions. They are not flipsides of the same coin.)

This makes the trick of having a good experience before remembering the past important. Since you have already lost whatever objective reading of your prior state of happiness (and even the idea of an objective state is highly debatable), thinking about it in a better light is probably more useful to you. You become a more positive person, which people respond to better, and that helps you out.

So before you start rewriting your C.V. or resume, sit down and do something you enjoy. Watch the Team USA beat the USSR in the 1980 Olympic hockey matches. Look at a picture of your daughter lighting up when she sees you coming around the corner (see the picture above). Check out a film with a manipulatively happy ending, like The Wizard of Oz. Do anything that makes you feel good. Then tackle the resume. You’ll remember things as being happier, which will be reflected in your writing.

This is a much better approach than what we normally do, getting ourselves all worked up about doing it perfectly and thinking about all the times everyone has failed to recognize the value of our contributions. Yes, hidden high potentials are hidden because people do that. But it’s not worth dwelling on and you have too much to bring to the table to live in victimhood, regardless of how real that was.

Some of you will probably protest that doing this robs you of something important. Personally, I’m too old to care any longer about revenge or staying mad. It’s too damnably tiring. I’d rather have fun, enjoy life, and accomplish things than hold onto the past. But feel free to do what you need to.

I’ll still think it’s better to move forward with hope.

Image Credit: Presidential $1 coin program. (c) 2007 Bill Koslosky, MD (CC BY 2.5)


Al Gorman { 05.22.09 at 11:29 }

Could it be that our emotional well being has a relationship with our interpretation of the results that we have obtained or failed to achieve? In the context of capability an individual who believes he or she is not applying their full potential will have difficulty obtaining a global sense of satisfaction.

Based on the description we might postulate that the level of satisfaction one derives in the present state has some relationship with a present interpretation of the contextual past. As you have indicated the past is malleable insofar as it only exists in the present.

In a social setting current emotions, attitude, and behaviours influence our ability to access opportunity. As a good friend has observed we will have an interpretation of our occuring world. Why not have an empowering one?

Forrest Christian { 05.24.09 at 11:03 }

When Al and I start agreeing, it’s worth thinking about. Or it’s a sign of the Apocalypse. Yeah, why not have an empowering interpretation of our occurring worlds?

Did you know that Depressives aren’t people who see the bad side to everything but are actually people who see reality much clearer than others? Interesting, isn’t it?

There seems to be a place for looking reality square in the face (as described by Collins et al. in Good to Great) but also a time to ignore it altogether and make up a better story. Knowing when to do what is trickier than you’d think.

Mary McQueen { 05.31.09 at 11:49 }

I’m finally reading Phantastes by George MacDonald after meaning to for years, after reading that CS Lewis considered him his master.

As I read the following passage I immediately thought of the comments made by Forrest and Al:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?–not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself.

All mirrors are magic mirrors.

The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass. In whatever way it may be accounted for, of one thing we may be sure, that this feeling is no cheat; for there is no cheating in nature and the simple unsought feelings of the soul. There must be truth involved in it, though we may but in part lay hold of the meaning.

(ps. your kid is very cute)

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