Tag Archives: #joy

How to Be Happy with What You Have (Psychology)

The evolutionary psychology of social positioning and envy.

So picture this: You go into the mailroom at work and there’s an envelope from the president of your company. Of course, you rush to your desk so to open this one at breakneck speed. Did you do something wrong? Did you do something especially right? Are you being asked to take on an important role within your organization?

© Gettyimages

You make it to your desk and open that envelope up in record time. It is a personalized letter from the president to you congratulating you on your recent accomplishments and thanking you for your dedication to the organization. It ends by indicating that you will receive, starting immediately, an on-base salary increase of $10,000 a year. Wow! You were NOT expecting this! You can hardly contain your joy at this wonderful news!

You take a photo of the letter and text it to your spouse, who also works for the same organization. She texts you back with a photo of a letter that she just received. Also today. Also from the president of the organization. She is being given an on-base salary increase of $12,000 a year for her accomplishments. In the next hour, you find out about similar letters received by several of your colleagues. And get this: In each case, the raise is larger than your own!

An hour ago, you were bursting with joy at the news of your raise and the recognition of your great work. Now, 60 brief minutes later, you are sulking and are planning to go home early so as to avoid seeing everyone else whom you work with. Your joy has turned to shame and embarrassment pretty quickly. You never want to see any of them again!

On your drive home, you call the only person in the world who might make you feel at least somewhat better in this moment: your mom. Mom, of course, congratulates you and tells you that she sees this as GREAT news! And that you should focus on your own positive outcome. Hey, you just got a $10,000 raise! That money will make your entire life so much easier for the rest of your days. Good for you!

After you hang up with Mom, you find your emotional state immediately shifting back to all-out pity-party status. You find yourself not even being able to be happy for your wife’s raise. And the money from her raise will directly benefit you and your children immensely moving forward. 

What the heck is going on?

A Thought Experiment

To best understand why so many of us would feel more negative than positive emotions in the aforementioned example, here is a thought experiment. Which of the following would you prefer to obtain?

A. You get a raise of $9,000 and everyone else gets either no raise, or a raise of $5,000


B. You get a raise of $10,000 but everyone else gets an even-bigger raise

If you’re human like the rest of us, there is a good chance that, in fact, you’d choose option A.

Of course, in an absolute sense, this is ridiculous. The more money the better, right? And it’s clear that $10,000 is more than $9,000. So in terms of your own lot, you should pick option B. But let’s face it, one’s salary is largely an index of one’s status within an organization. And with so many economic indicators in our world, salary is often less about its surface-level function (how much money you get) than it is about one’s position and value within a community (see Frank, 2005).

The Evolutionary Psychology of Social Rank

The human mind evolved in small-scale, nomadic communities across thousands of generations (see Geher, 2014). Under such conditions, being ostracized or being designated as low in value and status would have threatened one’s ability to survive. Humans evolved to depend on close others. And achieving relatively high status in one’s circle is one way to ensure that others will support you and have your back in life.

For this reason, we evolved to be very sensitive to markers of our relative positions in social circles (see Hill & Buss, 2010). Threats to our social rank famously lead to adverse emotional consequences such as anxiety, shame, and embarrassment (as in the salary-based example used in this article). When it comes to our evolved social psychology, the human mind is highly relativistic in nature.

For this reason, we often make decisions that might seem irrational on the surface. Someone might take a cut in pay to obtain a high-status position such as Director of Vice President, for instance. Someone might spend outside his or her means to live in a gorgeous house that he or she can barely afford just so as to keep up with the Joneses. And people may well prefer to get no raise at all compared to getting a smaller raise than everyone else gets.

From a rationalistic perspective, none of these decisions makes sense on the surface. But if we keep in mind how incredibly relativistic our evolved social psychology is, it all comes to light. 

The Dark Shadow of Envy in the Human Experience

While there are many downright deplorable aspects of the human experience, I’d argue that envy is right up there as one of the worst. Envy exists when you want something that someone else has. And envy totally relates to our evolved positional psychology when it comes to marking our social rank (see DelPriore, Hill, & Buss, 2012).

On the surface, envy never makes sense. Imagine that you are someone who loves to travel. And you are at a party and you find out that some close friends have just scheduled a two-week trip to Hawaii. Meanwhile, that same day, you and your spouse looked at your finances and concluded that you will have to pass on your annual two-night getaway at the Jersey shore this year. 

On the surface, the fact that your friends are going to Hawaii is just awesome and you should be happy for them. But, again, humans are humans. And many people might feel at least a splash of envy in this situation and, along the way, they might find it hard to even express happiness for their nice friends who are planning their first-ever luau with their two adorable children. 

The ability to travel is clearly a luxury and is, thus, what Robert Frank (2005) would term a positional good. It provides information about your social rank. Your friends are going to Hawaii. You’re, literally, going nowhere. The dark emotion of envy evolved to motivate people to take steps to move upwards in their social rank, regardless of the often-despicable forms that envy can often take in our worlds. 

Bottom Line

It’s not always easy to be happy with what we have. Humans evolved a social psychology that is positional in nature. We evaluate our social rank constantly and we feel threatened when our value is low within some localized community. We can understand this from an evolutionary perspective, as our ancestors, living in small, tight-knit groups, who were low in status were less likely to reap benefits from others. So we evolved the tendency to be ashamed if our value is publicly lowered and envious if someone else in our circle has some marker of higher status than ourselves. 

Understanding our evolved psychology surrounding positional status and envy can help us understand the negative emotions associated with these phenomena. And, just perhaps, a fuller understanding of these concepts can help us actually be happier with our own lot in life.

I hope so, because at the end of the day, we’re only here once. And, consistent with the emerging field of Positive Evolutionary Psychology, we should always remember life is too short to spend it on such negative aspects of life such as envy. You only get one chance. Focus on the positives, and make it count. 

References: (1) DelPriore, D.J., Hill, S.E, & Buss, D.M.(2012). Envy: Functional specificity and sex-differentiated design features. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 317-322. (2) Frank, R. (2005). Does Absolute Income Matter?”in P. L. Porta and L. Bruni, eds., Economics and Happiness, New York: Oxford University Press. (3) Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer. (4) Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press. (5) Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Risk and relative social rank: positional concerns and risky shifts in probabilistic decision-making. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 219-226. 

This article is originally written by Glenn Geher, who is professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is founding director of the campus’ Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

Using a Video Game to Understand The Origin of Emotions (Neuroscience)

Emotions are complex phenomena that influence our minds, bodies and behavior. A number of studies have sought to connect given emotions, such as fear or pleasure, to specific areas of the brain, but without success. Some theoretical models suggest that emotions emerge through the coordination of multiple mental processes triggered by an event. These models involve the brain orchestrating adapted emotional responses via the synchronization of motivational, expressive and visceral mechanisms.

The transient synchronization between the different emotional components corresponds to an emotional state. Credit: UNIGE/LEITAO

To investigate this hypothesis, a research team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) studied brain activity using functional MRI. They analyzed the feelings, expressions and physiological responses of volunteers while they were playing a video game that had been specially developed to arouse different emotions depending on the progress of the game. The results, published in the journal PLOS Biology, show that different emotional components recruit several neural networks in parallel distributed throughout the brain, and that their transient synchronization generates an emotional state. The somatosensory and motor pathways are two of the areas involved in this synchronization, thereby validating the idea that emotion is grounded in action-oriented functions in order to allow an adapted response to events.

Most studies use passive stimulation to understand the emergence of emotions: they typically present volunteers with photos, videos or images evoking fear, anger, joy or sadness while recording the cerebral response using electroencephalography or imaging. The goal is to pinpoint the specific neural networks for each emotion. “The problem is, these regions overlap for different emotions, so they’re not specific,” begins Joana Leitão, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Fundamental Neurosciences (NEUFO) in UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA). “What’s more, it’s likely that, although these images represent emotions well, they don’t evoke them.”

A question of perspective

Several neuroscientific theories have attempted to model the emergence of an emotion, although none has so far been proven experimentally. The UNIGE research team subscribe to the postulate that emotions are “subjective”: two individuals faced with the same situation may experience a different emotion. “A given event is not assessed in the same way by each person because the perspectives are different,” continues Dr. Leitão.

In a theoretical model known as the component process model (CPM) – devised by Professor Klaus Scherer, the retired founding director of CISA- an event will generate multiple responses in the organism. These relate to components of cognitive assessment (novelty or concordance with a goal or norms), motivation, physiological processes (sweating or heart rate), and expression (smiling or shouting). In a situation that sets off an emotional response, these different components influence each other dynamically. It is their transitory synchronization that might correspond to an emotional state.

Emotional about Pacman

The Geneva neuroscientists devised a video game to evaluate the applicability of this model. “The aim is to evoke emotions that correspond to different forms of evaluation,” explains Dr. Leitão. “Rather than viewing simple images, participants play a video game that puts them in situations they’ll have to evaluate so they can advance and win rewards.” The game is an arcade game that is similar to the famous Pacman. Players have to grab coins, touch the “nice monsters,” ignore the “neutral monsters” and avoid the “bad guys” to win points and pass to the next level.

The scenario involves situations that trigger the four components of the CPM model differently. At the same time, the researchers were able to measure brain activity via imaging; facial expression by analyzing the zygomatic muscles; feelings via questions; and physiology by skin and cardiorespiratory measurements. “All of these components involve different circuits distributed throughout the brain,” says the Geneva-based researcher. “By cross-referencing the imagery data with computational modeling, we were able to determine how these components interact over time and at what point they synchronize to generate an emotion.”

A made-to-measure emotional response

The results also indicate that a region deep in the brain called the basal ganglia is involved in this synchronization. This structure is known as a convergence point between multiple cortical regions, each of which is equipped with specialized affective, cognitive or sensorimotor processes. The other regions involve the sensorimotor network, the posterior insula and the prefrontal cortex. “The involvement of the somatosensory and motor zones accords with the postulate of theories that consider emotion as a preparatory mechanism for action that enables the body to promote an adaptive response to events,” concludes Patrik Vuilleumier, full professor at NEUFO and senior author of the study.

Reference: Joana Leitão et al, Computational imaging during video game playing shows dynamic synchronization of cortical and subcortical networks of emotions, PLOS Biology (2020). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000900 https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000900

Provided by University of Geneva

Why Do We Like Holiday Movies? (Psychology)

Holiday movies offer hope, joy, love, and the promise of a kinder world.

Using entertainment for comfort, escape, and positivity can be an important antidote to COVID stress and Zoom fatigue. Holiday movies are a reliable and popular choice. Media companies have noticed, and some have upped their investment in holiday “feel good” movies. For example, according to the LA Times, Mar Visa entertainment has gone from investing about 10% of its development funds in holiday movies to about 50%. Why? Holiday movies make us happy.

©Getty Images

Psychologists talk about happiness by distinguishing between two types: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is what we feel from sensations of pleasure and enjoyment. It tends to be more transitory, like eating chocolate. Eudaimonic happiness comes from experiences that create a sense of meaning and purpose and tends to be with us longer. Both kinds of happiness are important and contribute to overall well-being in different ways.

With holiday programming, we can experience both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. We feel positive emotions when we respond to humor, romance, a beautiful location, appealing actors, or a satisfying ending. Holiday movies can also create a more profound sense of meaning by restoring hope and the promise of social connection, love, and purpose. The message is there, no matter how convoluted the plot. We can go along for the ride, suspend disbelief and revel in the simplicity because we know where we’ll end up, and it’s someplace we all want to be. 

Holiday movies have a reputation for being predictable and often disdained for their “cheesy-ness” and stereotypical characterizations, low(er) budgets, and reliance on tropes. They blend bits of rom-com and light drama with an infusion of seasonal inspiration about the meaning of generosity, caring for others, and family. They are guilty pleasures that make us feel good—we don’t expect critical acclaim. We want reassurance that the world will be put right, especially now when everything feels so upended. The characters face challenges, a disillusioned or an ill-fated hero struggles, makes sacrifices, and ultimately achieves not just happiness but the true meaning of holiday spirit through romantic connections or familial reconciliations.

The predictability provides comfort; no matter how outlandish, unbelievable, or simplistic, the plot taps into real emotions. The predictability means we also enjoy re-watching favorite Holiday movies, like White Christmas, because the familiarity feels good. We all want to feel connected and “home” for the holidays. These movies can trigger memories and shared experiences that make the holidays more meaningful. 

Holiday movies also tend to be family-friendly and can be a good option for multi-generational entertainment. You can organize a family watch party, coordinating viewings across multiple households. Everyone can make popcorn and watch the same movie at the same time. (Check out the Netflix’ TelepartyHulu’s Watch Party, or Disney’s Plus Party.) Just because we can’t be together, doesn’t mean we can’t do things together.

If you’re feeling guilty indulging in a holiday movie, don’t. If anyone in your family gives you grief, tell them it is cinematherapy. Holiday movies bundle together highs and lows, so we get the psychological and physiological benefits of laughter and empathy. Laughter can impact brain levels of neurotransmitters similar to antidepressants and can minimize your responses to threats like COVID anxiety. Laughter also can lower stress hormones that can damage our cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems over time, increasing vulnerability to diseases. Similarly, positive emotions such as hope, empathy, awe, gratitude, and joy have longer-term psychological benefits. A steady diet of positive emotions can increase optimism and resilience and make us more open-minded, creative, and productive.  

This article is originally written by Pamela Rutledge who is the Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University.  This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

Two-Year-Olds Love Helping Others As Much As They Love Helping Themselves (Psychology)

Before you dismiss all 2-year-olds because of the “terrible twos,” hear this: a recent study shows that 2-year-olds experience a similar amount of joy when helping others as they do when helping themselves. That’s right: adults are more selfish than toddlers.

Why do people help others? As adults, no act of kindness is performed without an expectation of personal gain. Our brains literally reward us for being generous. In a January 2017 study released in the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers sought to discover what drives toddlers to be altruistic. Sure, it’s partly an evolutionary adaptation, but there’s a purer motivator: it brings them unbridled joy.

For this study, nearly 100 2-year-olds were placed in front of wooden marbles and a tube apparatus. The researchers deciphered the toddlers’ emotions through Microsoft’s Kinetic body-motion capture system. When each toddler ran out of wooden marbles, the researcher (who was busy hanging clothes on a line) reached for a box, then pretended to struggle with the lid. When the researcher asked each toddler to help remove the lid, he or she found a control object (a random piece of plastic), a wooden marble, or a clothes peg. According to Research Digest, the Kinetic measurements showed a similar, positive posture when the toddlers discovered marbles for themselves and when they found a peg to help the researcher: “chest raised, a bit like an adult display of pride.”

In most cases, discovering a peg that would help the researcher was just as exciting as discovering a marble, which would be super fun to play with. See? Not-so-terrible twos, after all. The study concludes by stating: “these results suggest that for young children, working for themselves and helping others are similarly rewarding.” And cue the collective awws.