7 ways you're jinxing your own happiness

7 ways you're jinxing your own happiness

Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.

Your next vacation is months away, and as you make your hotel and air reservations, a small and annoying thought creeps into your consciousness. What if someone in your group gets sick, and you’re not able to go? Or maybe you’re planning to visit a part of the world that’s prone to storms and/or earthquakes. What if one of those calamities strikes? You would definitely feel bad for the people whose lives are disrupted by these horrific events, but you couldn't help but feel cheated out of a good time by factors outside of your control should these occur.

Thinking ahead to an event that should be enjoyable with these annoying feelings of trepidation can undoubtedly detract from the pleasure of the experience altogether. Part of the fun of such pleasant events as going on vacation, attending a wedding (or having your own), or seeing a concert or play is the thrill you get of counting down as the big day gets closer and closer. By the same token, after the event is over, you can now think back on it with pleasure, as you recall its high points, or you can focus on all the things that went wrong. Even worse, while in the midst of what should be a pleasurable occasion, you find it impossible not to think that it will soon end.

These types of ruminations fall into the category of common mindset traps in your “mental time travel”. As noted by University of Exeter (in the United Kingdom) psychologist Barnaby Dunn and colleagues (2018), “much of our conscious life” is taken up by this type of thinking (p. 19). The authors note that when the mental time travel takes on a negative cast, people will not work as hard to get the rewards associated with pleasant events, nor will they learn from their experiences. Their “affect as information” perspective proposes that “the actions we take are in large part shaped by the information conveyed by our affective experience” (p. 20). To be able to regulate your motivation, they argue, you should be able to “anticipate, experience and remember positive affect” (p. 20). If you can’t, those events you so eagerly await and remember will lose their ability to enhance your happiness.

The tendency to dwell on the negative in imagining the future or remembering the past, as Dunn et al. point out, is a hallmark of depression. By using a “dampening appraisal” of your experiences, you'll feel less of the hedonic pleasure that gives so much zest to life. While you’re in the middle of an enjoyable experience, if you have these thoughts, you’re bound to miss out on whatever good things are legitimately happening to you.

Across two studies of undergraduate participants, the Exeter psychologists contrasted the impact of remembering a past event and anticipating one in the future with either “amplifying” or “dampening” instructions. The amplifying instructions encouraged a positive mood state by telling participants to think about their positive feelings “as the start of good things to come,” “about how you are living up to your potential”, and “how happy you feel”. In the dampening condition, participants were told to “think about why the feelings of positivity … are too good to last, why you don’t deserve these positive feelings and what things could go wrong as a result of these positive feelings” (p. 23).

As the authors expected, participants experienced stronger feelings of sadness after the dampening instructions, even though the events they were either anticipating or recalling were inherently positive. The instructions to amplify their positive emotions had no impact on feelings of happiness among the participants. In other words, telling a person to “think positive” has less of an impact than telling a person not to “think negative.” In fact, as shown by a more detailed analysis of the findings, it seems that the dampening instructions actually magnify whatever dampening appraisals people ordinarily make of their life experiences.

Let’s take a look, then, at what those dampening appraisals consist of. In a supplemental paper, the authors show which specific thoughts lead people to focus on the negative when thinking forward or backward about their experiences. See how much you agree with these 7 statements with regard to the way you feel about a positive event in your life:

  1. You think about things that could go wrong.
  2. You think, “I don’t deserve this.”
  3. You think, “My streak of luck is going to end soon.”
  4. You remind yourself that these feelings won’t last.
  5. You think about the things that have not gone well for you.
  6. You think about how hard it is to concentrate.
  7. You think, “People will think I am bragging.”

If you’re agreeing more than you’re disagreeing with these statements, it means that you will have trouble finding joy in your experiences. As the Dunn et al. study showed, furthermore, these thoughts don’t just impair your memories for the past. When you dredge up these thoughts as you plan an event such as a vacation, party or night on the town, you’re priming yourself to let your thoughts wander in a pessimistic direction. In the words of the authors, “If an individual engages in dampening appraisals, recalling a positive memory and anticipating a positive future event turns into an active negative mood induction (rather than simply a less effective positive mood induction).” It becomes hard to escape this negative mood induction once it’s activated.

The British findings have interesting implications for the treatment of people with a depressive disorder. If you’re trying to encourage these individuals to focus on the positive, your efforts to counteract the feelings of sadness would either be ineffective or perhaps even backfire. Instead, you’d have better luck by having them identify and then try to lessen those thoughts that would most likely jinx their happiness.

We don’t know exactly why people who engage in negative prognostication or recall allow their dampening appraisals to take over. Perhaps you’re planning a vacation for only some, but not all, of your family, or perhaps you’re a little worried that you can’t afford the expense. Guilt about enjoying yourself under these circumstances could lead you to twist positive into negative anticipation. Similarly, remembering an experience in which you had fun, but not everyone else did, could prime the guilt pump.

Fulfillment in your day-to-day experiences involves getting the most out of them, both before and after they occur. By learning to avoid the jinx trap, yours will be that much more enjoyable.

Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. Republished with permission of Psychology Today.