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I've had a very stressful week this week, thus, I'm posting on Saturday, as opposed to Tuesday or Wednesday. I work at a hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault, which is both rewarding and stressful. (It's rewarding knowing I'm helping others; it's stressful constantly having to tell people that there aren't that many resources out there to help them get out of their situation, and the resources that are out there are stretched thin.) Add to that the fact that I'm absolutely failing at my diet, my husband and I are talking about moving and buying a house for the first time, and that the holidays are coming up. Mix it all up, add a dash of sleep-deprivation, and voila! A perfect recipe for a crying girl.
This week, instead of doing a post about physical health, I thought I'd do a post about psychological health. Because I'm me -- weird, quirky, and downright strange -- I didn't want to do the normal tips on self-care. (I think we've all heard them: take a break, exercise, go for a walk, get a massage, etc...They're good tips, and something to keep in mind, but I've also heard them hundreds of times.) I wanted to give tips that are a little strange, but effective. So what did I do? I went to my college notes on evolutionary psychology. Odd, I know, but what would you have done?
What I found were my evolutionary psychology professor's tips on how to be happier. They basically break down into two categories: progress and expectations.
The basic argument for progress is that our brains are wired to reward progress and punish failure. This is believed to come from the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA). The thought is that if you were a caveman (or cavewoman) and you relaxed in a time of abundance you would be screwed when the next famine came. Instead, our reptilian brains give us a short-term dopamine reward when we succeed, like getting a raise, but after a while that reward diminishes, and we go back to trying to get the next reward. This would be useful in the EEA because instead of just relaxing in a time of abundance, you would be working, trying to get yourself ready for the next famine. Not surprisingly, some games use this to keep you addicted to playing. (Think about leveling up in an online game, and how good it makes you feel.)
On the flip side is the fact that our brain punishes us when we fail. We all know the feeling of failure. It sucks. I felt that way this week with my diet and not getting my post out on time. However, the good news is that it is not in our evolutionary interest to be debilitatingly depressed. Thus, our brain eventually turns off the shame, and we go back to the same level of happiness where we were before the failure. A famous example of this is Christopher Reeves. Reeves was asked to rate his happiness before and after his horse accident, the one that left him paralyzed and unable to play Superman. Surprisingly, Reeves rated his happiness as pretty much the same both before the accident and after. The truth is that after some big event (a horrible accident, or even winning the lottery) our happiness level changes, but eventually we level back out again. My evolutionary psychology teacher argued that most people who commit suicide after a horrible event do so within the first week of the event, because they can't imagine ever being happy again.
The second category is about expectation. There is a simple equation that explains this:
Outcome - Expectation = Happiness
I think this is very easy to understand. If you have high expectations for something, and they are not met, you tend to be disappointed. If you have low expectations for something and it turns out to be great, you feel awesome.
Here are six tips from evolutionary psychology on how to be happier:
- Buy friends and family members small gifts that are not tied to holidays or birthday. The gift receiver will be happier because it surpasses expectations. Yes, giving gifts unexpectedly makes other people happy, which in turn makes you happy. That is, if they don't feel suspicious that you are trying to butter them up for something.
- You should change activities in your exercise program when your performance starts to plateau. You will be happier when you are showing progress at an activity. We tend to get a lot of gain in the first few weeks, but then we hit a plateau. Change your activity so you can see bigger results. For example, once you hit a plateau in biking, change to running. There is also the benefit that physical activity releases endorphins and that in itself makes you feel better.
- On your to-do list, divide jobs into explicit small chunks that will allow you to experience progress. The task pack up the house, is kind of daunting, and will be on your to-do list for a long long time before it's done. Instead, put something like “pack up guest bathroom today”. The knowledge that you have gotten one thing off your to-do list will give you a mental feeling of progress, which will make you feel good.
- Under promise, over deliver. Tell your boss a project will take two weeks, and get it done in one. Tell your friend you are running 20 minutes late, and get there in 12.
- Lying around accomplishing nothing is unlikely to make you happy. Happiness comes from accomplishing goals. Researchers gave participants beepers, and every time their beeper went off participants had to write down what they were doing and how happy they were. Surprisingly, people were most happy when they were at work, especially if they were actively and productively engaged in a project and experiencing flow (if you don't know what flow is, look here for the definition).
- A career with advancement opportunities will make you happier than a better-paying job with no chance of promotion. Once again, people like progress. If you get a job that pays you well, but you can't go anywhere with it, you're likely not to feel as happy about it down the line as someone who gets a job that doesn't pay as well, but that has growth potential in the job.
Anyway, let me know what you think about the evolutionary tips on happiness. Do you think they are useful? Obvious? Do you think they could help you?