MU professor discusses his "happiness model"

May 10, 2012

An MU psychology professor has put a tactical spin on happiness. 

Dr. Ken Sheldon recently published what he calls “the happiness model” – a psychological tool that might help people improve their emotions. His research can be found in the journal “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.” Dr. Sheldon sat down with KBIA’s Matt Veto to discuss his research.

Veto: I suppose we should just start with the basics in talking about how this model works.

Sheldon: What we’re talking about is how to prevent Hedonic Adaptation from occurring. This just means that whatever good things happen to us, we tend to get used to them. We start to take them for granted, we don’t notice them anymore and once that happens, they won’t affect us and we’ll fall back to where we started before that thing happened – that change happened. So, we have this model that we constructed through a lot of conversations and research that basically says, yes, Hedonic Adaptation occurs, but there’s ways to thwart it – to keep it from happening. And it basically boils down to whatever that positive change was in your life, you have to keep interacting with it. You have to keep deriving positive experiences from it on a daily basis. So if you’ve got a new boyfriend or a new car, either way, you should be doing things with that person or car on a daily basis that bring you pleasure and joy. 

The other way to do it is to avoid wanting even more or better of the change, and this is another manifestation of adaptation; we get used to it, it’s the new baseline and now we’re ready for something even better. And so, we need to find ways to resist that process as well. And according to the model, the way we do that is we pause, we take stock, we appreciate, we feel grateful for the change and it’s hard to both be grateful and appreciative of something and want even more and better of it. You tend to be content with and satisfied with it.

Veto: You had mentioned that set point that a person reaches as far as where they kind of live in their happiness…

Sheldon: …most of the time…

Veto: …most of the time. So this is really relative to the person.

Sheldon: Exactly.

Veto: So I imagine another important aspect would be to not look at someone else – you can’t be envious and have this model work.

Sheldon: Right. A big part of these raising aspirations – “I want even more this time” or “I want him to look even better” – is comparing to what other people have. There’s a lot of research saying that social comparisons – upward social comparisons, people have more than me – is not very good for one’s happiness.

Veto: Is there a definition of psychological study of “happiness,” or is it more up to the person to kind of determine their own emotions and make that definition?

Sheldon: It’s really up to the measures we use, and we’ve converged on a set of measures that hang together and are psychometrically valid; basically it’s a function of having a lot of positive moods, not too many negative moods, and being globally satisfied, making a judgment that you’re satisfied with your life.

Veto: Where do you see this being employed? Is there any aspect that this could fall into training or things like that?

Sheldon: A lot of times people think, “OK, if I get the next, the best, the more expensive version, then I’ll get that rush, and I’ll be back where I want to be. A lot of times over-consumption is like an addiction, looking for the next fix. We think this is very relevant to people who are struggling with over-spending, or spending more than they have. This model provides tools for getting the most out of the money you’ve already spent.