The Four Attitudes of Happiness
Happiness comes more easily to those with a certain outlook.
Posted June 7, 2011 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
We often hear the phrase, "Happiness is an attitude." What exactly does it mean? How can happiness be both an emotional end-state (as we know it to be) and an attitude—which is more like an opinion or judgment—at the same time?
We know that when we're happy, we look at the world differently, through rose-tinted glasses as it were. We are more generous, expansive, and gregarious, and less prone to making negative judgments. So, being in a happy state leads to a certain way of looking at things, a certain attitude, if you will. Is that what people mean when they say happiness is an attitude-that being happy leads to a certain way of looking at things? If so, the statement isn't useful, since it doesn't tell us how to be happy. It merely sheds light on how we are when we are happy.
I prefer the following alternative interpretation of the phrase: Happiness comes more easily to those who have adopted a certain way of looking at things. In this view, attitude precedes-and determines-the quality of our emotional state.
At one level, it should be easy to understand how our attitudes can shape our emotions. Findings show that every time we experience an emotion-be it anger, anxiety, sadness, happiness, joy, love, or pride-it is always preceded by a set of thoughts that are unique to that emotion. For example, you may have been angry at your boss because you didn't get a promotion that you felt you deserved. The anger at your boss, in this case, is a response to the following type of thought: "My boss is preventing me from achieving a desired goal." Likewise, you may have felt anxious during a taxi ride to the airport because you weren't sure if you would make it to your flight on time. In this case, the anxiety was preceded by thoughts pertaining to uncertainty about catching your flight.
If emotions are always preceded by thoughts that are idiosyncratic to the emotion in question, it follows that we can change the emotion by changing the thoughts. Theoretically speaking, we could experience an entirely different emotion by merely re-interpreting a situation. For instance, the anger you feel at your boss for denying you a promotion can turn into gratitude if you focused, instead, on the fact that he hasn't fired you.
Sounds simple, right? Anytime you experience a negative emotion, all you need to do is to come up with a more positive re-interpretation of the event that induced the negative emotion and voila, you will start feeling positive!
It's simple in concept but difficult in practice. Further, you may wonder whether such positively biased re-interpretations are even desirable. You could argue that such positive reinterpretations could lead you to become a delusional personality-someone who doesn't see reality as it is.
I will revisit this point later. For now, let's focus on how one could go about re-interpreting outcomes and events to more frequently experience happiness.
There are four attitudes that are useful, all of which share the common underlying feature of directing thoughts toward a more favorable perspective. The first is adopting a more favorable perspective in interpreting the actions of other people.
Say you're in a taxicab and the driver appears to be taking a longer-than-normal route to your destination. An obvious interpretation is that the driver is trying to take advantage of you: he is trying to extract a higher fare from you. Alternative interpretations are also possible, including: (1) this is the only route he knows, (2) there is construction going on in the shorter route, (3) the route you know, although shorter in terms of distance, is longer in terms of time, etc.
Let's examine how your interactions with the driver would differ if you were to entertain these alternative interpretations of his behavior. If you adopted the obvious negative perspective-namely, that the driver is out to cheat you-you would naturally be angry. As a result, you would probably not chat with him during the drive and further, you would probably not tip him. If, instead, you entertained the first alternative possibility (that he is unaware of the shorter route), you would probably say, "I think I know a shorter route" and wait for his response. If you entertained the second alternative possibility, you may say, "Is there construction going on in the other (shorter) route?" and again, wait for his response. The interaction would undoubtedly be more pleasant if you were to adopt a more charitable interpretation of his behavior. As a result, even if the driver were actually cheating you, you would be more likely to get happiness-enhancing favors from him (e.g., he would perhaps assist you with your bags when you arrive at your destination, or switch to a radio station of your choice, etc.).
If your objective is to more regularly experience happiness, it follows that you would be better off by entertaining more positive interpretations of others' behaviors first, and only turn to the negative interpretations after ruling out the positive possibilities. Of course, you could only do this if the situation is relatively ambiguous and lends itself to multiple interpretations. (For example, there are few alternative positive interpretations when being mugged.) However, research shows that even in ambiguous situations-wherein people could legitimately entertain positive interpretations-, most people's natural inclination is to turn to negative interpretations first. Recall the last time you could not find your wallet after the cleaning lady had come in? Most people in this situation first entertain the thought that the cleaning lady stole the wallet. This leads to a perfunctory search for the wallet which, in turn, makes it less likely that the wallet will be found, thus enhancing faith in the negative interpretation-a vicious cycle.
The second attitude involves adopting a more favorable interpretation in forecasting the impact of a present outcome on future outcomes.
Here's a fact: We're essentially incapable of figuring out the long-term consequences of a particular outcome, such as missing a flight, failing to get a particular job, and so on. One reason for this is that we are incapable of assessing the relevance of particular outcomes for important long-term goals. Take the taxicab example again. Say, for instance, that you were able to rule out all alternative explanations for the driver's behavior and are thus forced to conclude that he took the longer route to extract a higher fare from you. Is this necessarily such a bad outcome (providing the extra money you paid isn't large)? Isn't it possible that some positive outcomes came about because of the driver's behavior? Perhaps the longer route was more picturesque. Or, maybe the longer route gave you the opportunity to have a long and meaningful conversation with the driver. Or perhaps you would not have run into that other guest who checked in with you—and with whom you have now made dinner plans—had you arrived earlier.
The point is, almost always, an outcome that we initially judge as negative triggers a set of positive outcomes that could only have occurred because of the "negative" outcome. Thus, it is almost always possible to retrospectively judge a negative outcome as a blessing in disguise, but only if we choose to adopt this attitude. (Needless to say, I am leaving out extremely negative events- like the death of a child, or killing someone in an accident-here.)
Put differently, given the inherent randomness in life, it would appear perfectly justifiable to entertain the possibility that what you initially judged as a negative event could, in fact, be a good thing for you in the future. But most of us don't take such a perspective; instead, we are usually fully convinced about how we feel about outcomes. And by being so sure about our negativity, we invite more negativity into our lives. How so? Because the way others respond to us depends on how we interact with them; if we are negative when we interact with others, they are more likely to be negative towards us as well. Thus, for instance, anger at the taxicab driver makes you more prone to being irritable with the check-in clerk at the hotel, which, in turn, makes it more likely that you will get a room with a bad view, and so on. Looked at in this light, taking a positive view on what initially appears to be a negative event is much more likely to produce more positive outcomes-that is, a positive outlook literally changes the objective outcomes we experience. Thus, from the perspective of a person interested in maximizing happiness, it's a no-brainer to take the positive view.
You may yet remain unconvinced. You may claim that adoption of the positive view doesn't punish those who need to be punished. For instance, you may feel that you are responsible for punishing the taxi driver so that he doesn't cheat other passengers.
Although it is possible to make this type of argument to justify a negative response towards others, note that it is unclear whether your anger toward people makes them less or more likely to cheat in the future. Research has shown that anger is contagious, and that when people are angry, their natural inclination is to behave in an antisocial manner. Thus, there is no guarantee that your anger towards the taxi driver will make him less prone to cheating in the future. Indeed, it is even possible that you are more likely to achieve your goal by being nice to him; findings in positive psychology show that people experience an emotion called elevation when others are kind to them, and this feeling leads to pro-social behaviors.
If you are still unconvinced and believe that nothing short of exhibiting anger at the driver will teach him a lesson, here's a win-win strategy: go ahead and get angry at the driver and give him a zero tip, but also go ahead and enjoy the positive outcomes (e.g., the good views) along the way. Why not? If your anger towards the taxi driver is for strategic reasons (to prevent him from teaching others), why let him dampen your spirits?
The third attitude is a variant of the first two, but rather than focusing on other people or on external events, it focuses on internalized assumptions about what leads to happiness.
If you ask people what it is that they need to get in order to be happy, they would find it relatively easy to come up with a rather long list, including: (1) money, (2) love/sex, (3) eating out at fabulous restaurants, (4) fame, (5) a position of power and importance, and so on.
But how accurate are our intuitions about what will make us happy? One way to find out is to give people whatever they think they need to be happy, and then see if they in fact are happier. Although such an experiment has not been conducted, we can arrive at some reliable conclusions about whether people's theories about the determinants of happiness are accurate. And it turns out that they are not.
For instance, people think that money will make them happier than it actually does. Money, although positively correlated with happiness, is only weakly so. As some recent findings by Hsee, Kahneman, and others show, those with more money are a little more happy mainly because of the freedom that the money gives them to procure the things they need, and to do the things (e.g., pursue a hobby) they want to. In other words, it's not the money per se, but the doors that it opens, that brings happiness. Another reason why money brings happiness is because we infer our capabilities by looking at our paychecks; in other words, those who have more money feel better about themselves (e.g., have higher self-respect) and this leads to greater happiness. If so, a person with less money could be just as happy by simply figuring out how to respect himself more internally-an issue I will touch upon shortly.
It's almost a no-brainer that material goods, possessions, fame, and power do not bring lasting happiness; if anything, they can be said to cause greater unhappiness by setting ever higher aspiration levels-a phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill effect. For example, a person with a little fame seeks to become more famous, and achieving the desired level of fame does make him happy, but only temporarily. Once he gets used to his new level of fame, he desires to be even more famous, and so on. The hedonic treadmill effect is true for the other determinants of happiness such as sex, possessions, and power as well.
Nevertheless, these determinants consistently figure in people's requirements for a happy life. Indeed, so blind is people's faith in their ability to bring happiness that, some of my own research findings show that, given a choice between two jobs: one that will bring greater happiness but won't pay as much and another that will be a constant source of stress but pays a lot, most experimental participants have little hesitation in choosing the latter. It is as if in the pursuit of happiness, people have lost sight of what they are ultimately after (which is happiness) and focus, instead, on the things that they have always presumed will bring them happiness. What is particularly fascinating is that people never question their presumptions about what brings them happiness even if their presumptions are constantly disproved!
The third attitude to achieve happiness thus involves constantly questioning your theories about what you need in order to be happy. It also involves being courageous enough to jettison those assumptions that do not appear, on closer examination, to be true.
One of the first things we need to do is to explicitly articulate to ourselves that happiness is our ultimate goal. The goal of happiness should be accorded precedence over everything else: money, possessions, fame, and respect of others. In short, there are no sacred cows here: if we find that the things we thought would bring happiness-such as a bigger house or car, actually do not bring us happiness, whereas other things that we hadn't considered such as pursuing a hobby or visiting old friends do bring us happiness-then we must revise our views accordingly. Diligent subscription to such an attitude will lead to greater clarity about what truly brings happiness.
Subscription to the three attitudes described thus far will eventually lead to the adoption of a fourth attitude: enhanced confidence in your own ability to deal with anything that life throws at you.
In my opinion, this is the single biggest determinant of happiness. Why? For two reasons.
First, being confident about facing life's challenges generates positive emotions because the confidence will make you feel more hopeful about the future, and will thus enable you to look forward to life. And second, being confident enhances the chances of making positive events happen in your life. This is not because of magic, but because of what is known as the hypothesis confirmation bias. The hypothesis confirmation bias refers to the following phenomenon: if you believe that a certain outcome will unfold (e.g., if you believe that you will get a job or that you will fail an exam), that outcome has a higher chance of occurring. In medical circles, this is called the placebo effect. The hypothesis confirmation bias has been established so consistently and across such a wide variety of contexts that I will not dwell on it anymore, except to emphasize that if you fully entertain alternative-and more positive-interpretations of others' behaviors and outcomes, your future will have a greater number of objective more positive outcomes. This is guaranteed, statistically speaking.
It is important to note that the analysis I have provided herein is entirely scientific. I have provided logical-and in many cases, empirically validated-reasons for why adoption of the Four Attitudes leads to happiness.
However, a potentially legitimate concern remains to be addressed: Will the adoption of these attitudes lead to becoming delusional? Let's say, for instance, that you recently goofed up a presentation because of which you lost an important business client. Shouldn't you recognize that you failed at the presentation rather than adopting a positive interpretation of it (such as, for example, feeling happy that the client didn't throw rotten eggs at you)? Wouldn't the adoption of a positive outlook in this instance make you delusional and prevent you from learning from your mistakes?
Not really. First-and this is important to recognize-adopting the Four Attitudes is not the same as ignoring reality. In the context of interpreting other people's actions, we would be ignoring reality if we always attributed only positive motives to others' actions even when all the evidence were to the contrary. In the context of judging outcomes, we would be ignoring the reality if we failed to acknowledge the downstream negative consequences. I am not recommending ignoring reality; rather, I am advocating developing the attitude of focusing on the plausible positive possibilities.
It is important to note, from the perspective of learning from past outcomes, that it is adopting a positive outlook that permits you to learn-by allowing you to move on and not ruminate on the past. Recall the last time you made a fool of yourself in a presentation or suffered some such ignominy. Perhaps the shame and embarrassment enhanced your resolve to take steps to avoid similar outcomes in the future, but note that your learnings did not come from the negativity; in fact, you could only learn when you moved past the negativity. Adopting a positive attitude, as studies on resilience have shown, helps you move past negative outcomes more quickly, and thus, accelerate the speed at which you learn. A person who dwells on the past isn't capable of learning.
Second, as Jonathan Haidt and some others have argued, it is those with a positive outlook who are more aligned with reality than those with a negative outlook. How so? Because, in general, people are more negative than they should be; that is, people have a tendency to be overly skeptical-a phenomenon referred to as negativity dominance. So, far from being delusional, you would actually be more realistic if you were more positive.
Third, for reasons already discussed, people with a positive outlook will attract more positive outcomes in their lives. As such, even if others see you as being a little delusional, they will simultaneously recognize that you are generally good at achieving your goals. In other words, they will recognize and appreciate your optimism and positivity, and will make note of your resilience. As such, you will come to be known as someone who can take on challenging assignments and complete them. Ask any boss, and he will tell you that he would much rather have someone who is enthusiastic and positive than someone who is pessimistic. It is thus no surprise that it is the happy people who are the more successful at work; on average, the most happy workers command a wage difference of over 20% over their least happy counterparts.
We can now return to the original question: "Is happiness an attitude?"
The answer clearly appears to be "No!," but we can say that "Happiness results from the adoption of the Four Attitudes." We can also say that the Four Attitudes are available for anyone who wants to adopt them-anyone who is open-minded enough to give it a try for a few days or weeks and see whether life does, in fact, take a turn for the better.
As already mentioned, the Four Attitudes, while simple in concept, are difficult to put in practice. However, the good news is that we can start the practice immediately-we don't need separate preparation to get ready. After all, life is constantly throwing things at you. Even as you finish reading this, there's an opportunity for you to take a more positive perspective on something that just happened (or will happen soon)!
Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free) Coursera course on happiness.