Short-lived happiness may seem like a natural, frustrating part of life, but what if there’s a way to make feelings of enjoyment last longer?
That is possible, according to researchers from the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M University, and it comes in the form of goal setting.
The researchers explored how framing a goal for an experience influences levels of happiness over time, and found that having more general goals can allow people to experience a broader range of positive emotions.
“Even though happiness is perhaps the most sought after goal universally, it is destined to adaptation, and is fleeting when experienced. This research was motivated by an interest in finding ways to extend the happiness experienced from consumption experiences,” said Rohini Ahluwalia, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota and author of the study.
Traditional goal setting
Previous research has shown that setting concrete and easily measurable goals can be helpful for various areas of life, including work, weight loss and exercise, since having a more specific approach can allow people to quantify and keep track of their progress.
But, when the goal in mind is happiness — a feeling impossible to quantify — this may not be the best method.
To test this idea, the researchers set out to find if traditional goal setting is limiting the levels of happiness experienced by consumers.
In one experiment, the researchers asked three groups of participants to describe an important purchase they made in the preceding month.
One group described purchases aimed at increasing their general level of joy and happiness in life, while the other two groups had more specific goals in mind. They wanted to become happier by increasing excitement, or by increasing relaxation and peace of mind.
Then, the researchers gave each participant a survey with questions regarding how much initial happiness they received from their purchase. Two weeks later, the participants received an email asking how much their purchase was contributing to their overall happiness, and how aware they were of it.
Six weeks later, the same email was sent out.
The researchers found that while the levels of happiness were equal among each group after the initial purchase, those who had broader goals reported feeling more happiness as time passed. This difference was most significant at the six-week point.
In another experiment, which tested the happiness levels of participants after listing to a new song, the participants with general happiness goals experienced more positive emotions than the participants who had a specific goal of feeling excitement and energy, and were willing to pay a higher price for the song.
“Having generalized emotional goals (e.g., feeling good, happiness) allows the person to experience a broader range of discrete positive emotions (e.g., excitement, joy, relaxation), both initially and over time, during different consumption episodes or when reliving a memory of the consumption experience,” said Ahluwalia.
“When people experience a broader set of emotions relating to an object or experience, they feel more connected with that target, which in turn, enhances the target’s top-of-mind awareness.”
One of the reasons why people stop deriving happiness from a specific purchase is because they stop paying attention to, or appreciating, the object that gave them happiness initially, Ahluwalia explained.
Additionally, having specific goals increases a person’s focus on a particular emotion, which can cause them to miss out on feeling other positive emotions.
“Broader goals, by increasing the breadth of emotions experienced, which in turn enhances the target’s top-of-mind awareness, allow the person to continue deriving happiness from it for a longer period of time, slowing down hedonic adaptation,” said Ahluwalia.
Though Ahluwalia suggests that more studies need to be done to confirm these findings, the research presents a simple strategy: when it comes to emotional goals, it can be more advantageous to keep it general.
“Unlike in other domains, where goal specificity has significant advantages, in the realm of happiness, having general (vs. specific) goals may hold the key to a happier state of being,” said Ahluwalia.
Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.