Positive experiences happen to us everyday yet we don't always take full advantage of them. Have you ever noticed that it could be a great day (you had 8 hours of sleep, it’s the weekend, had a great conversation with a friend etc…) but that it takes just one harsh word from someone or one piece of bad news to ruin the day. Research by Shelley Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative. What keeps us from fully capitalizing on all the good in our lives, making us a slave to the bad? Researchers have identified two main tendencies that keep us from experiencing, extending, and expanding our joy: the negativity bias and habituation. The negativity bias refers to our mind's innate tendency to give more weight to the negative; Roy Baumeister has shown that we tend to remember and focus more on negative experiences. Habituation, discussed in research on the hedonic treadmill, refers to the fact that while we receive boosts of happiness from new positive experiences, over time, we get used to these experiences and they no longer have the same effect.
How can we counter this tendency to assign greater weight to the negative experiences in our life? A recent study by Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues at Brigham Young University gives us a clue. Their research shows that discussing positive experiences leads to heightened well-being, increased overall life satisfaction and even more energy.
This research may seem surprising because we are often reluctant to talk about our good fortune. We don't want to show off. Sometimes we don't want to "jinx" ourselves. Or we may feel guilty that good things are happening to us in the face of the suffering that exists in other people's lives. Bonding over complaints, commiseration or even gossip somehow feels more proper, realistic and grounded. However, Lambert and colleague’s research suggests that describing our happy experiences to close friends and romantic partners is a better idea.
A number of studies have shown that making daily lists of the things you feel grateful for – which helps draw our attention to the positive experiences in our lives – improves our psychological and physical health and well-being. For example, gratitude improves our ability to connect with others, boosts our altruistic tendencies, make us optimistic and happier, decreases envy and materialism and even improves health for people with physical ailments (neuromuscular disorder, in one study). Lambert's new study, however, extends research on gratitude to show that verbally expressing the gratitude we feel to people close to us helps increase and sustain our well-being above and beyond simply feeling or writing down gratitude. Great literary figures have long known that happiness grows in sharing. In one of her letters, Charlotte Brontë observes “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.” In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf writes "Pleasure has no relish unless we share it.” Lambert’s research provides empirical validation of their wisdom.
The researchers found that people who habitually tend to talk to people they are close with about the good things that are happening to them also tend to feel happier and more satisfied with life. They also found that, the more these people shared their happiness with someone on a given day, the happier and more satisfied they were on that particular day. To actually determine whether sharing happiness caused this boost in well-being, the researchers then invited participants into a laboratory with a romantic partner or friend. Participants were asked to write down a positive experience or a neutral experience like a fact they had learned in class and either share it with their partner or not. Those that shared a positive experience with their partner experienced a greater boost in well-being than those who did not share their experience with their partner or who shared a neutral experience with their partner. These findings suggest that it is the act of sharing happiness (and not of just thinking about happiness but not sharing it, or of sharing neutral information) that boosts well-being.
Next, the researchers investigated the effects of regularly sharing happiness over a longer period of time (4 weeks in this case). New participants were asked to write daily in a journal about experiences they felt grateful for, or about neutral subjects they had learned in class. They were then either given no further instructions or were instructed to share these with a partner twice a week. Those who shared their grateful experiences with a partner reported greater satisfaction with life, happiness and vitality (level of energy and zest for life).
One reason that the study asked participants to share their experience with close friends or romantic partners may come from the fact that these people may be more likely to support us. In the study’s last experiment, the researchers noticed that participants that received constructive, encouraging, enthusiastic and positive messages after a successful experience (high achievement on a test) showed greater signs of happiness, love and appreciation. We’ve all experienced sharing an exciting event or plan with someone who did not respond in kind or, worse, criticized our idea and left us deflated. When sharing a positive experience, it is important to select a supportive listener.
The bottom line: sharing our joy increases joy. Telling people about our happiness has far greater benefits than just remembering it or writing it down for ourselves. This research may also help partially explain research by Nicholas Kristakis and James Fowler has shown that our well-being influences that of those around us, up to 3 levels of separation. To try and be happy may seem like a selfish endeavor but it is actually a worthwhile goal to pursue not just for oneself but for our community. In turn, we can help support others’ joy by encouraging them to share their most positive experiences, and the things they feel grateful for. Supporting a friend or acquaintance's well-being in turn may impact not only ourselves but the well-being of all the people connected to that friend. Albert Schweitzer, a German physician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was right when he said “Happiness is the only thing that multiplies when you share it.”
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.