The Pursuit of Happiness Part 2: Intentional Activity

Is this second part of a  series on Sustainable change for happiness, we will look at the data showing if and how happiness can be changed permanently.  In part 1 we examined some basic definitions and questions regarding sustainable change in happiness.   It helps to be familiar with the definitions in Part 1. 

Built for the Climb

Are humans happiest when striving?  A study involving college students from 2001 (Sheldon et al, J of personal and social psychology) showed that student who set goals and met them the first semester had enhanced happiness at the end of the semester.  That makes sense.  The key was that this enhancement was only sustained if they continued into the second semester.  In contrast, students who did not meet second semester goals regressed toward original well-being.  Also, 3 years later students who met goals both semesters had sustained enhancement throughout college.

This goes in line with the philosophy that humans are built for the climb (Yes I’m thinking of Dr. Dahle (White Coat Investor) canyoneering in Zion national park), meaning we are happiest when striving toward a goal, not sitting idle (hence fears of an idle (early) retirement!)

Me climbing the Nualolo Cliff in Kauai.

What about Hedonic Adaptation?

Does all of the change we make not matter?  After all, don’t we just adapt to our new more positive state of mind and return to some baseline level of happiness?  Maybe not with all types of change.  In a study by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky in 2004, well-being was measured at 4 time points.

Time 1 – Baseline   Time 2 – After positive activity change   Time 3 – after Positive circumstance chance   Time 4 – Much later than the changes at Times 2 and 3.

The takeaway point is that while both the Activity Change and Circumstance Change were associated with positive well-being change initially, with time (at Time 4) only the Positive Activity Change was sustainable.   These results indicate delayed adaptation to certain types of change.

What are the advantages of Intentional Activity

  • Intentional activity is episodic.  Unlike circumstantial change with is always  present, activity is by definition episodic.  This difference offers a method to delay adaptation.  I’ve touched on this episodic concept when discussing how spending money can increase happiness if done correctly.
  • Intentional Activity can be varied.  By definition, adaptation doesn’t occur to activity that is changeable.  I’ve touched on this concept also.
  • Intentional Activity can directly counteract adaptation by drawing attention to the features that initially produced the happiness boost and keeping them being taken for granted.  Consider the classic circumstantial change example of buying the nice car.  You’ll eventually get bored of it right?  Maybe not if you practice a few activities about the car.  Keep it cleaned and take pride in the shiny wax, do your own repairs or get involved in the repair process, attend car shows and discuss the car, take her to the track, etc.

Takeaway points:

  • Humans are built for the climb.  Set goals and meet them, but continue to set new goals and strive to meet these.
  • Positive Activity Change  on well-being appears sustainable, in contrast to Positive Circumstantial Change,
  • Intentional activity is likely the best of the 3 well-being domains to focus on for sustainable change due to it’s resistance to hedonic adaptation by being episodic, variable and directly opposed to adaptation.

In Part 3 we’ll learn about Implementing Intentional Activity strategies to produce sustainable happiness increases.


3 Replies to “The Pursuit of Happiness Part 2: Intentional Activity”

  1. We sometimes get so focused on our finances that we lose sight of what is really is important – happiness. Money does buy happiness, but only to a point. Once you are living comfortably it doesn’t matter as much. Nice post that gets some of us back down to earth.

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