This Separates Happy and Unhappy People

So much of our focus is on happiness – wanting it, finding it, trying desperately to hold onto it. We seek it out as a rare treasure, and now scientists are suggesting that happiness can seem so hard to come by, not because we haven’t felt it but because our current feelings distort or interfere with our happy memories.

According to Alberto Prato and Claudia Senik, who authored the study, there is a certain distinction between happy and unhappy people. It involves how they remember their well-being over time. “Happy people tend to overstate the improvement of their life satisfaction over time, whereas unhappy ones tend to overstate the deterioration of their level of happiness.”

The authors analyzed survey data on the well-being of over 11,000 German citizens over 10 years. Every year the survey participants noted their level of life satisfaction on a scale from 1-10, and at the end of the 10 years, were asked to choose a line graph that represented how they viewed their life satisfaction during this time.

Researchers found that participants who currently assessed themselves with high life satisfaction were more likely to select a line graph that suggested “continuous improvement.” This trend followed as the participants’ current satisfaction declined: Participants who reported medium satisfaction tended to choose a line graph that showed “slight” improvement, and for those who identified as having poor life satisfaction currently, their future prediction of well-being was bleak.

“People are able to recall how they used to feel about their life, but they also tend to mix this memory with the way they currently feel,” according to Prati and Senik.

More research was used to confirm this phenomenon. Using data from Britain of over 20,000 participants, scientists collected reports of how participants felt about their current life satisfaction and compared it to how they remembered feeling a year prior: more, less, or equally happy.

Results were consistent with the German reports – “inaccurate recollections appeared to be influenced by current satisfaction.” This falls in line with similar studies from France and the U.S., as well.

More research is needed to fully understand how our current feelings impact our memories of well-being and, for that matter, how our memories influence or predict our current feelings. The authors of the study plan to continue working to understand how our memories can dictate behavior, mindset, and openness to trying new things.

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