Happiness Is Fleeting — But Science Says There’s A Way To Extend The Feeling

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Photo by Key Notez

Happiness is fleeting, we’re often told.

According to renowned emotions researcher Brene Brown, there’s a difference between joy and happiness. Joy is an attitude and outlook toward life; it’s a positivity-laced approach toward facing the world, a “good mood of the soul.” Happiness, on the other hand, is a reaction to a specific positive stimulus, event, or experience that happens to us; we feel it in response to that moment, and then it eventually fades off. It feels good to chase happiness—those wonderful dopamine hits to the brain—but it comes with the understanding that the feeling is only temporary.

But is it possible to make those hits of happiness last longer? A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests it just might be. It has to do with setting expectations around what kind of feelings you hope to experience.

For the study, researchers looked at how 70 college students felt about a purchase they made within the last month—something that they bought specifically to make themselves happier. Some people described items they bought for the general goal of feeling happier, whereas others described more specific emotional goals they were hoping to experience through their purchase: feelings of excitement, for example, or feelings of calmness. The buyers were asked how they felt about the item shortly after purchase, two weeks later, and then in another two weeks after that. The researchers noticed that people who had more general happiness goals tended to experience more happiness over time than the people who had been seeking very specific types of happiness. The "general happiness" seekers had particularly more good feels about their purchase at the 6-week mark.

We normally think of goals as being better or more effective the more specific they are. But these findings suggest that being a little looser and more flexible about your expectations might sometimes be more beneficial.

“When it comes to experiencing positive emotions, specific emotions (e.g., excitement) are neither more tangible nor easier to observe or evaluate than their general counterparts (e.g., happiness). Thus, specific goals may not hold an advantage in this domain,” the paper notes. “When people seek happiness via specific positive emotions, their focus on experiencing particular emotions (e.g., excitement) can lead them to miss out on feeling or attending to other positive emotions that might also be available (e.g., relaxation), narrowing the range of discrete emotions experienced.”

In other words, our focus on what happiness “should” look like or the form it "should" take is actually making us less able to experience happiness in all the surprising and diverse ways it can appear in our lives.

"If people watch a movie with a specific goal like feeling excitement, then they may be less likely to remember the funny or meaningful elements of the movie," said Rohini Ahluwalia, Ph.D., University of Minnesota marketing professor and one of the study’s authors, in a press release. "A general happiness goal can leave a longer-lasting positive emotional imprint."

As you move through life and experience events both large and small, one of the best ways to maximize how positively you feel about your circumstances might be to just remove the “shoulds.” Open your mind up to the huge range of positive emotions that you could potentially gain from an experience without limiting yourself to one specific goal, these findings suggest, and you might just be able increase the amount and duration of those happy feelings, whatever form they might take.

"We can make small changes in our thinking patterns to help us experience more joy," Ahluwalia said. "Given that short-lived happiness after experiences is such a common phenomenon, this is an important step in stretching that timeline."

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