Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Do rose-colored glasses make you happy? How happiness and a positive focus influence each other

By Janina Steinmetz

 

Image ©: Nikos Koutoulas 2011

All of us look to find happiness every day. In our purposeful pursuit, feeling happiness can fuel our energy and reward our efforts. That’s one reason why research in the past decades has tried to find the secrets of happiness. One surprising finding of this research has been that some people are simply happier than others (so called high trait happiness) and feel more happiness on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, researchers wanted to explore in what ways these chronically happy people are different from people who feel less happiness. For instance, people high in trait happiness are more optimistic than others. But how does trait happiness manifest itself in everyday life? Do chronically happy people look at the world differently?

Research by Hannah Raila and Brian School from Yale University, and Jane Gruber from the University of Colorado at Boulder has investigated whether happy and less happy people perceive the world differently. To make this possible, the authors used an eye-tracker, which tracks people’s eye movements when they look at pictures. With this tool, researchers can identify what someone focusses on and what gets their attention. In their research, Hannah Raila and her colleagues showed participants neutral pictures (e.g., a mug) together with positive pictures from different categories of positivity: There were pictures related to positive achievement (e.g., gold medals), positive social interactions (e.g., friends laughing) and pictures of simply rewarding things (e.g., delicious foods). This procedure makes it possible to measure what people would focus their attention on, the positive pictures or the neutral pictures. In addition to this attention focus task, the researchers measured participants’ chronic levels of happiness by asking them questions about their general happiness in life, independent of the current day’s mood. What the researchers discovered speaks to the rose-colored glasses hypothesis: The happier participants were in general in their life, the more they focused on the positive pictures, instead of on the neutral pictures. Which aspect of positivity the picture showed did not matter. Chronically happy people focused on social, achievement, or appetizing positive pictures just the same, and neglected the neutral pictures.

This work connects well to NPP member Liz Dunn’s work which shows that people are happier with their spending when they spend it on other people. It seems that happiness is something people can actively pursue, whether it is through being prosocial to others or by looking at the bright side of life. Although Hannah Raila’s study is only one first piece of evidence, it might suggest that happy people in everyday life also focus their attention on the positive things they encounter. Whether it’s a beautiful flower or the delicious smell inside a bakery, there are plenty of little positive things in our daily life that might go unnoticed if we don’t focus on them. Maybe the secret of happy people is to seek out and appreciate these positive things as much as they can. 

 

Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

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