When More Isn’t Better…It’s Worse

Why more money probably won’t make you happy – and what will.

Study after study has shown that wealth has surprisingly little effect on how happy you are.  Most of us tend to think that if we just made a bit more money, we’d get more satisfaction out of life, or have a greater sense of well-being.  But on the whole, this turns out not to be true.   So why doesn’t money make us happy?  Recent research suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how wealthier people lose touch with their ability to savor life’s pleasures.

Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences.  When we focus on what we are doing in the moment, when we eagerly anticipate something or relish our memories of it, when we relive it by describing it to others, we are savoring – and in the process we are enhancing our own happiness.

Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, imaging the fun you’ll have on an upcoming vacation (and leafing through your trip photos afterward), telling all your friends on Facebook about the hilarious movie you saw over the weekend – these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.

Why, then, don’t wealthier people savor, if it feels so good?  It’s obviously not for a lack of things to savor.  The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes from chic boutiques, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more every-day pleasures, like the smell of a steak sizzling on your backyard grill, or the bargain you got on the sweet little sundress from Target.

These new studies show that people who have higher incomes spend significantly less time savoring their experiences than their relatively poorer peers do.  Interestingly, just being exposed to images of wealth can dampen your savoring skills!  In one study, college students who had recently seen a photo of a stack of money spent far less time eating a bar of chocolate, gulping it down rather than relishing each bite, and displayed far fewer signs of enjoyment, than those students who hadn’t seen the money.    Just thinking about wealth can make us lose sight of the good things happening to us right now.

Part of the reason I found these studies so interesting is that they fit so well with some of my own experiences.  A few weeks ago, my mother was visiting me in NYC, and we decided to treat ourselves to a special dinner at a particularly good restaurant in Little Italy.  We got ourselves all dolled-up for the occasion in dresses, jewelry, and high heels. (As the mother of two small, messy children, you’ll typically find me in t-shirts, yoga pants, and running shoes.) I was even carrying my one designer handbag (which I bought at an outlet, and treat like its made of gold).  I remember thinking in the taxi on the way down to the restaurant how much fun it was to dress up for a change.  And then it occurred to me that if I did this sort of thing all the time, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it at all.  I thought about what a shame that would be, and wondered if being rich could turn out to be, in some sense, surprisingly boring.

The good news is that you don’t have to take a vow of poverty to be really happy and appreciate your experiences to their fullest – even rich people can set themselves the goal of savoring more, once they realize that they aren’t doing enough of it.  Really, no matter how much money we have (or how little), we could all do with a bit more savoring of life’s simple pleasures.  The trick is actually remembering to do it – and that’s where if-then planning comes in.  I’ve written before about this strategy – if you want to remember to do something, decide when and where you are going to do it in advance.  (People are, on average, 200-300% more likely to succeed if they use this form of planning).  So, if you want to remember to savor, you could make plans like the following:

If I am eating, then I will remember to do it slowly and think about how my food tastes.

If I have a success at work, then I will tell my friends and family about what happened.

If I see something beautiful, then I will stop and soak it in, and feel fortunate to have seen it.

Make savoring life’s little pleasures your goal, and create plans for how to inject more savoring into each day, and you will significantly increase your happiness and well-being much more than (or even despite) your growing riches.  And if you’re riches aren’t actually growing, then savoring is still a great way to truly appreciate what you do have.


How to Put An End to Our Emotional Eating

When I’m feeling bad – whether it’s anxious, depressed, or simply frustrated - I often find myself wanting to seek comfort in the arms of a pint of chocolate ice cream or a bag of Doritos.  I know I’m not alone.  Psychologists call this emotional eating, and it is thought to be one of the major contributors to obesity in our country.

Americans are stressed out, and seeking treatment for anxiety and depression in record numbers.  Experiencing all of those bad feelings each day leads us to consume more and more high-calorie junk food, to try to make ourselves feel just a little bit better (ignoring the fact that binging almost inevitably leaves you feeling even worse).

At least, that’s how most of us, including the psychologists, think emotional eating works.  Only we are wrong.

Feeling bad does NOT make you more likely to reach for comfort food.  It’s turns out that it’s how you deal with your bad feelings that determines whether or not you’ll be brushing the potato chip crumbs off your pants.

Recent research shows that experiencing anxiety, depression, or anger is only associated with emotional eating when we try to suppress our feelings – to control them by not expressing them, by keeping them to ourselves and trying to push them out of our minds.

Aside from being a really lousy strategy for dealing with emotions for a whole host of other reasons, suppression is really hard to do.  It relies heavily on, and often fully exhausts, your capacity for self-control.  This leaves you unprotected -  completely vulnerable to temptation.  And that is why we reach for “comfort” foods – they are the sweet and salty snacks that we normally have the self-control to resist.  But if you’re using up all of your willpower trying to suppress your fear or sadness, then when the junk food appears you are practically a sitting duck.

So, how can we deal with our feelings in ways that don’t leave us vulnerable to temptation?  You can engage in what psychologists call cognitive reappraisal, which is really just a fancy way of saying “thinking differently.”  Try following these steps:

  1. Don’t hide from your feelings – take a moment to examine them.  In particular, focus on what’s causing them.  Why are you feeling so anxious, so frustrated, so down?

  2. Next, try to think about the cause of your trouble in ways that diminish its impact:

    1. Be objective (Would other people react this way?  Am I over-reacting? Am I blaming myself when I shouldn’t?  Am I being too pessimistic?)

    2. Put it in perspective (In the scheme of things, is this really a big deal?  If things don’t work out this time, is it really the end of the world?)

    3. See the silver lining (What have you learned?  How will you take this knowledge with you and use it to grow and improve?)

Tackling your feelings head on, and thinking about them in ways that will actually help you to cope with the circumstances that caused them, may sound hard, but it actually uses less self-control than suppression.

New studies show that when people use this strategy to cope with their feelings, they don’t succumb to the call of the cookie.  And of course, they tend to feel better much more quickly.  So it’s not just a good way to stick to your diet – it’s a good way to become a happier person, too.


I Told You I Would, But I Probably Won't

A surprising reason why some promise-makers are often promise-breakers

Recently, my friend Jane (not her real name, for reasons that will become obvious) sat with me over a long lunch, and listened patiently to tales of how my children were slowly driving me crazy.  “You know what,” said Jane, touching my hand and clearly filled with sympathy, “I’m going to come over sometime next week and take the kids off your hands for a few hours so you can go have some fun.”

“Thanks Jane,” I replied, with zero enthusiasm, and changed the subject.  You see, despite my fondness for Jane, I knew there was no way in hell she was going to do anything of the kind.  I’d heard it all before.  It’s not that she didn’t mean what she was saying, that the offer wasn’t genuine.  In her mind, she had every intention of coming over to watch the kids.   Jane is the kind of person who sees herself as a Good Friend, and would be outraged if I replied to her generous gesture with what I was really thinking:  “I won’t hold my breath.”

For some people, I’ve noticed, saying you are going to do something feels just as good as actually doing it.   Jane is one of those people – she had a visible aura of satisfaction about her after she made her offer to babysit.  You could practically hear her inner voice doling out the compliments. You are so generous, Jane.  What a wonderful friend you are.

Indeed, why actually follow through on the offer to watch the kids, with all the hassle that entails, when simply expressing your intention to do so feels so good in its own right?

How can we understand these promise-breakers like Jane, whose intentions start out both genuine and admirable, but who never seem to act on them?  And just as important, how can we keep from becoming one of them?

Most people assume, with good reason, that making your intention to do something public makes you more likely to actually follow through with it.   This should be true for (at least) two reasons. First, going public commits you to a view of yourself that you want to try to be consistent with.  If I tell my boss that I’ll have a project finished by the end of the week, then I’m thinking of myself as the Kind of Person Who Gets Things Done Quickly, and I want to live up to that image in my own mind.  Second, going public makes you feel accountable to someone else.  If I don’t have the project finished by Friday, then my boss will likely think I am the Kind of Person Who He Should Fire.

Telling others about your intention to do something does make you more likely to actually do it, but this is only true when the actual behavior you are committing to is desirable for its own sake.   For instance, telling your friends that you intend to watch less TV and read more is a good idea if you’re doing it because you want more time to read.

But Jane wasn’t offering to babysit because she wanted to spend time with my kids – she was doing it to be a Good Friend.   Much of the time, the actions we intend to take are desirable to us because they validate some important aspect of our identity, of how we like to think of ourselves.  And it turns out, that’s where the trouble lies.

According to Self-Completion Theory (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), when we are committed to particular identity goals, like being a good parent, a talented artist, or a successful business person, we engage in a variety of activities in order to prove to ourselves (and to others) that we are in fact good parents, talented artists, or successful business people.

Some of these activities are essential to the identity – an artist isn’t really an artist if she doesn’t at least occasionally create some art.  Other activities are purely symbolic – like self-praise (“Look at that brushwork. I am so good!”), or dressing the part by walking around in a paint-spattered smock.  When we fail at some task that is relevant to our identity (a rejection from an art gallery, a bad review from an art critic), we feel a sense of incompleteness – saddened and anxious that we aren’t living up to our mental image of who and what we are supposed to be.

To restore our sense of completeness, we try to engage in activities or show off status symbols related to the damaged identity.  A doctor who loses a patient may put in extra hours at the office, reflect on some of the patients he has healed, or spend a little extra time in his white lab coat and stethoscope.

Completeness is also enhanced by an audience.  When other people notice our symbols – like an intention to do something a doctor, and artist, or a Good Friend would do - it gives you the same completeness-boost you’d get from actually doing it.  In other words, when other people hear us talk about our identity-related intentions, we get a sense of completeness from just talking about it.  And since talking is usually easier than doing, why bother with the latter?

Recent research shows that when our identity-based intentions are noticed by other people, we are indeed less likely to translate them into action.  Ironically, the more important the aspect of your identity is to you, the less likely you are to go through with it.  In a sense, Jane may be such a lousy friend precisely because it’s so important to her to see herself as a good one.

In one study, undergraduates who were on the path to one day become psychologists were asked to write down their two most important study intentions for the coming week (e.g., “I intend to study more statistics” or “I will take my reading assignments more seriously.”)  Half of the participants watched as their intentions were read by an experimenter– the other half were told that the intention questions weren’t supposed to be in the experiment at all and would just be discarded, unread.

One week later, the students were asked whether or not they had acted on their intentions.  Just having their intentions read by the experimenter actually decreased their likelihood of acting by 30%!

In a second study, groups of second-year law students wrote about their three most important intentions with respect to becoming a lawyer (e.g., “I will read law periodicals regularly.”)   Half of the law students then made their intentions known to the rest of the group, while the others kept them privately to themselves.  Later, to measure their sense of completeness, each student was asked how much they felt like a lawyer right now, on a scale from 1 to 5.   Sharing their intention to do lawyerly things bumped completeness scores up a full point, from an average of 3 to 4.  So just telling people you are going to do some lawyer stuff makes you feel almost like an actual lawyer!

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to keep yourself from falling into this trap.  How can you stop being a promise-breaker, someone who talks plenty but rarely bothers with the walking part?

Well, one obvious solution is to keep your intentions to yourself.   Without an audience, intentions alone won’t give you the sense of identity-completeness you’re looking for.

If you can’t do that, the next best thing would be to make sure that you think about and express your intentions in ways that emphasize how what you’re going to do is valuable in its own right, not just as a way to bolster your identity.  The father who vows in front of his pals to spend more quality time with his kids has probably just made himself feel like a Good Dad, but just reduced his chances of actually being one.  If instead, he vows “to spend more time with my kids, because they really need me right now,” or “because I love being with them,” he’s made it clear to everyone, including himself, that it’s not just about being a Good Dad – it’s about time with the kids, for its own sake.   You will get beyond the talk when you make a point of remembering why it’s worth taking the trouble to walk.

Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009) When intentions go public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?  Psychological Science, 20, 612-618.

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1982) Symbolic self-completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


Battling It Out

The best way to fight with your spouse

Having a satisfying, healthy relationship with your partner doesn’t mean never fighting – it means learning to fight well. Like me, you’ve probably often heard that little piece of wisdom, and wondered what in the world it means.  How exactly do you fight well?  What is the best way for two people to cope with their anger, frustration, and hurt, without undermining their mutual happiness?

My husband and I have never completely seen eye-to-eye on this issue (that’s right, we even fight about fighting.)  Of course, we both agree about the obvious no-nos – name-calling, low blows, plate-throwing etc.  But having been raised in very different regions of the country, in families with very different habits of emotional expression, we approach our arguments with very different ideas about what constitutes “fighting well.”

My husband is from Minnesota, where niceness is the norm and feelings are for keeping to yourself, thank you very much.  When conflict arises, he vastly prefers to not talk about it, believing that if we just ignore it, the conflict will probably just go away.  Emoting makes him very uncomfortable.

I was born and raised a Catholic from New Jersey, where feelings are most definitely for sharing, with anyone who will listen, whether they want to or not.  When something upsets me and I try to keep it to myself, I feel like a ticking time-bomb.  My husband often jokes that in my universe, nothing “goes without saying” – and when I’m angry, that definitely goes with saying.

So which of us is right?  When conflicts arise, should you suppress the urge to express your anger, point out your partner’s flaws and shortcomings, assign blame, and demand change?  Or should you fully engage in battle, letting the accusations and emotions fly?  It’s hard to know which strategy will work best in the long run.  Arguments can be emotionally painful and exhausting, and they can often make mountains out of molehills.  Then again, tackling a problem head on, however unpleasant, can be constructive.  It can motivate both partners to bring about the changes that are necessary for lasting happiness.

Thankfully, recent research might just put an end to all the fighting about fighting.  The best way to deal with conflict in a marriage, it turns out, depends on how serious or severe the problem is.  Did your spouse drink too much at the party last night, or is he drinking too much every night?  Did she splurge a little too much on clothes last month, or are her spending habits edging you closer and closer to bankruptcy?  Did he invite his mother to dinner without discussing it with you first, or did he invite his mother to live with you without discussing it first?  Little problems and big problems require very different approaches if you want to have a lasting, happy marriage.

In two studies by James McNulty and Michelle Russell, newly-married couples were brought into the lab and videotaped discussing an area of difficulty in their marriage.  Six to eight months later, they were contacted again for a follow-up interview that included questions about their marital satisfaction.

The researchers found that in the context of relatively minor and insignificant problems, direct fighting strategies – like placing blame on your spouse for their actions or expressing your anger - predicted a loss of marital satisfaction over time.   Flying off the handle when he forgets to take out the garbage yet again, or when she spends a little too much money on a pricey pair of shoes, is going to take its toll on your happiness in the long run.  You really are better off letting the small stuff go.

On the other hand, in response to major problems, these same direct fighting strategies predicted increased marital satisfaction!   In other words, expressing your feelings, blaming your partner and demanding that they change their ways will lead to greater happiness when the conflict in question is something significant – something that if left unresolved could ultimately tear your relationship apart.  Issues involving addiction, financial stability, infidelity, child-rearing, and whether or not you live with your mother-in-law need to be addressed, even if it gets a little ugly.  Couples who battled it out over serious issues did a better job of tackling, and eventually resolving those issues, than those who swept big problems under the carpet.

So when you are deciding whether or not something is worth fighting over with your partner, ask yourself if, in the scheme of things, the problem is a 10 or a 2.  If it’s a 2, try letting it go.  But if it’s a 10, let the battle begin.  You’ll both be happier that way.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that in these studies, indirect fighting strategies – like passive aggressiveness, moodiness, insinuation, sarcasm, and deflecting responsibility - were always negatively related to marital satisfaction.   So if you’re going to be unpleasant with your spouse, make sure you are clear, honest and constructive.   If you’re not going to really address the issue, there is nothing gained from being a cranky jerk.  The goal is to bring about change, not make your partner miserable (no matter how tempting that may seem when you find yourself staring, once again, at your neglected and overflowing trashcans.)

J. McNulty & V.M. Russell (2010) When “negative” behaviors are positive: A contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 587-604.

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