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Week of April 22, 2013

Research

Unpleasant thoughts are easy to retrieve, but hard to believe

People feel happy about their future even after imagining the many bad events that might occur, a new U-M study found.

People tend to “explain away” the presence of bad possibilities in their own lives, thinking that they won’t actually happen to them, said U-M researcher Ed O’Brien.

“But we have a harder time explaining the absence of good possibilities. The absence of good events in our future feels much worse than the presence of bad ones,” he said.

O’Brien explored whether fluency — how easy or difficult it feels to think about different events — might play a role in how people think about well-being.

He conducted five studies, asking participants to complete surveys with questions that addressed past and possible future experiences and perceptions of well-being. Fluency amplified the effects of past events on participants’ reports of well-being: The easier it was for them to generate positive experiences, the happier they said they were in those times. Likewise, the easier it was to come up with negative experiences, the more unhappy people said they were.

But, in an interesting twist, this trend did not hold true for future experiences.

While thinking about positive future events was still correlated with people’s predictions of future happiness, thinking of negative future events didn’t have the corresponding effect. In other words, easily imagining negative possibilities didn’t sway people to believe that they would be unhappy in the future.

Participants also were asked to imagine events and happiness for one of their close friends. They predicted that negative events would have a significant effect on their friend’s well-being, the study found.

Having to recall many positive events was more difficult than coming up with only a few. People who were asked to recall 12 past events gave lower ratings of happiness for that period than people who were asked to recall only three experiences.

“Once you struggle to think about the good things, your life seems a lot less happy,” O’Brien said. “Ironically, trying to think of 10 good things that could happen to you and struggling with that list may be worse for your well-being than thinking about only two good things without any problem.”

When it comes to negative events, the opposite is true. There was no difference in predicted happiness whether participants were asked to think about three or 12 negative events — and in many cases, these participants reported just as much optimism toward their futures as those who first imagined positive events.

The findings suggest that, when it comes to negative events in the future, fluency doesn’t seem to matter. People expect that experiencing a few negative events is just as unlikely as experiencing many negative events and they discount the likelihood that the experiences will occur at all.

O’Brien said these findings have implications for how we think about what makes us happy.

“Anecdotally, many people endorse the belief that more happiness in quantity yields more happiness in quality,” he said. “But these findings suggest that struggling to think about many happy aspects of your life can yield less happiness than easily imagining the negative aspects.”

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