You might have heard that the best way to achieve something you want to do is to make specific rules. But specificity isn’t always the right approach. When you’re trying to live in the moment, give the goals a rest.
In a study published in March in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, corresponding author Rohini Ahluwalia and her team described how reframing your mindset about the near future can drastically alter how long you can hang on to your happiness. You might think that if you make specific plans for how you’ll use a new purchase, for example, you’ll get the most happiness out it. “With this new pair of hiking boots, I’ll have an exciting time climbing my first 14er!” might seem like a good goal to have — and it’s probably the best way to actually achieve a measurable accomplishment. But if you want to ensure that you actually feel good about those boots, frame your new acquisition in a different way: “With these new boots, I will be a happier person who hikes a lot.”
In one of the tests the researchers performed, participants were told that they were going to be rating a song (Lindsey Stirling’s “Electric Daisy Violin”) for the overall positive feelings that it gave them. Some were asked to base their rating in more general terms (“feeling good”) and others in more specific ones (“feeling excited”). The ones with who used more general feelings turned out to feel happier by nearly every metric. Both parties felt about as happy immediately after hearing the song, but those who had been primed to keep their eyes open for more general positivity reported more happiness after a five-minute distraction. They were also able to recall the song more easily and even reported that they would pay more for the song — 72 cents, while more those with specific ratings averaged a bid of 51 cents.
Okay, so thinking about happiness in general makes you feel better for a few minutes longer after you hear an upbeat song, but what about a feeling that’s more … lasting? That’s where the second study came in. This test was spread out over six weeks, and started with each participant being asked to consider a large purchase — $100 or more — they had made in the last month. Specifically, a third of the participants were asked about a large purchase that they thought would make them happier (a general goal), a third of them about a purchase that would increase their excitement and enjoyment (a specific goal), and a third about a purchase that would increase their peace-of-mind and relaxation (a different, also specific goal). It’s pretty likely that these college students would have chosen the same purchase no matter which question they were asked, but the way the question was framed had an impact.
During three check-ins over the course of six weeks, the participants who had been primed with more general questions demonstrated higher happiness overall and had their big purchase at the top of their mind when reminded by the researchers. That makes some sense. There’s nothing less happiness-inducing than cataloging exactly what your happiness goals are. So whether you’re gearing up to buy a pair of shoes you’ve been coveting or planning a vacation in the tropics, take a moment to ask yourself what you want to get out of it — and make sure it isn’t a bullet-pointed list.
Check out my related post: What is the wisdom of life?