Through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Are happy people more likely to see the positive things in life?

Posted Aug 10, 2015

Everybody wants to be happy.  

Along with the wonderful feeling that comes with happiness are the multiple health benefits that it brings. Happy people do much better when it comes to dealing with stress. They also tend to be healthier thanks to better immune functioning, fewer emotional problems, and greater energy. People also enjoy being with them since they are more likeable and more social in general. Is it any wonder that people try to be happy as much as possible? 

Happiness typically occurs through a) the frequency and intensity of pleasant moods, b) the infrequency of unpleasant moods, and c) how well we are able to view the world around us in a positive way.  While it's a common folk saying that happy people look at the world through "rose-coloured glasses," does feeling happy really make us more likely to focus on positive things?  A new research study published in the journal Emotion suggests that really is the case.

According to Hannah Raila of Yale University and her fellow researchers, there is a strong link between emotion and how we pay attention to the world around us.  From the moment we wake up in the morning to when we finally go to sleep, we are besieged by sights, sounds, and smells, most of which we learn to "tune out" just to stay sane.  This means that selective attention is an essential part of how we think since it allows us to restrict the sensory impressions that reach our brains all the time.  According to most models of selective attention, all of the information that reaches the brain goes through a sensory buffer that acts as a "bottleneck" that only allows in that information that we consider relevant.  This accounts for the "cocktail party effect" in which certain stimuli can reach us even if we aren't paying attention (such as if you hear your name being mentioned in the middle of a busy cocktail party).  

The emotions we happen to be feeling at any given time can also influence the kind of information that is likely to get through the bottleneck.  People who are feeling depressed are prone to focusing on sights and sounds that can reinforce that feeling of depression and ignore more upbeat stimuli.  For that matter, people dealing with posttraumatic stress become hypersensitive to specific sights, sounds, and smells that could trigger flashbacks or strengthen the emotional tension they are experiencing.  

But what about positive emotions such as happiness?  Though there are only a handful of research studies examining how positive emotions affect selective attention,  results do suggest that being optimistic can influence how we see the world.  Most of these studies still reflect the problem with measuring something like happiness under laboratory conditions, not to mention how it affects something as brief as attention.

In their new research study, Hannah Raila and her fellow researchers decided to examine the role that trait happiness has on selective attention.   Defined as a long-term personality trait associated with life satisfaction, trait happiness was measured using self-report scales to measure the extent to which research participants were generally satisfied with life and were upbeat and optimistic.  The seventy young adults who took part in the study also completed self-report measures measuring their mood at the time they took part in the actual research.  

After completing these different measures, they then took part in a laboratory experiment measuring the amount of time they spent gazing at  positive and neutral images presented to them as part of an experimental series.  The positive images included scenes of achievement (such as graduation ceremonies or athletes winning a race), social interaction (people laughing together or hugging), and primary reward (pictures of high-calorie foods which are typically enjoyable).  Neutral images were pictures of non-emotional scenes (shoes on the ground or mugs on a counter). There were twelve images in each category and all images were carefully counterbalanced to eliminate any research bias.

The research results showed that people scoring high in trait happiness showed a strong attention bias towards positive stimuli. Hannah Raila and her co-researchers suggested that this may prove that happy people literally "see the world through rose-coloured glasses" as they consistently preferred positive images over neutral images.  Other potential factors including age, gender, or the kind of mood participants were experiencing at the time of the research showed no significant effect on eye gaze or which images were preferred.   

This has interesting parallels with previous research looking at people experiencing clinical anxiety or depression who often show the exact opposite by being biased against positive images. All of which raises intriguing questions about cause and effect.  Are happy people more prone to paying attention to positive images?  Or is it focusing on positive images that reinforces that sense of happiness?  For that matter, is there some unknown third factor that could be affecting both?   

Though the nature of this study makes it impossible to settle this kind of question,  the role of attention bias in the emotions we happen to feel at any given time can be profound.  Just as paying attention to all the smiling faces at a party can lead people to feel upbeat at being someplace "fun," more negative surroundings (such as a funeral) can lead to a more somber mood. This can also lead to more long-term emotional problems for people who consistently focus on the negative (or even the positive in the case of people suffering from mania).  

Research into attention biases and emotion can also be important in developing better forms of psychotherapy for depression.  By training people to change their attention bias to focus on positive stimuli around them, depressed people can learn to control their mood and improve their satisfaction with life.. 

While it isn't always possible to ignore the uglier side of life, focusing on the positive things around us can be a vital part of staying happy and overcoming the inevitable dark moods that we all experience.  Looking at the world through "rose-coloured glasses" can have important benefits for all of us.