Denying the Self Increases Happiness
New research shows that denying the self of a pleasure promotes happiness.
Posted Sep 11, 2013
Despite living in a time of great abundance for many, having more does not always lead to greater happiness and well-being. For example, the experience of positivity tapers off once family incomes exceed $75,000 (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). As people grow accustomed to material goods (e.g., fine dining, new smartphones), they often experience hedonic adaptation—that is, they get used to the finer things and are less inclined to savor daily pleasures.
How can people avoid the trap of hedonic adaptation? Interestingly, scarcity can lead people to focus on enjoying an experience more deeply (i.e., savoring), which increases happiness. For example, Kurtz (2008) induced some University of Virginia students to feel like they had little time left before graduation (compared to another group induced to feel like they had more time left before graduation), and these students reported taking more photos, making more plans with friends, and throwing themselves into college-related activities.
Are there other ways to boost savoring and happiness other than feeling that one's time is limited? One possibility might be to intentionally withhold access to pleasurable things, which could increase the extent to which people savor them once they are available again. For example, many religious practices and cultural customs involve fasting or intentionally withholding pleasures from the self (e.g., Lent). Could it be that such self-denials increase happiness? A paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science this month by Quoidbach and Dunn (2013) found the answer to this question is yes!
Their study asked 55 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia to take part in a two-session experiment on eating chocolate. At Session 1, they asked some participants (restricted access condition) to not eat any chocolate for the next week. Others were told nothing (control condition) while a third experimental group were given two pounds of chocolate and told to eat as much as they comfortably could over the next week (abundant access condition). One week later, all participants returned to the lab (Session 2), ate a piece of chocolate, and then they reported on their feelings of happiness, mood, and savoring.
At the end of the study, the restricted access participants were happier than members of the other two groups. Further, those in the abundant access group reported the lowest levels of positive affect. Finally, additional analysis suggested that the reason why the restricted access participants felt more positive affect after eating chocolate at Session 2 was because their savoring of the chocolate was especially high (e.g., they were mindful of the flavors while eating the chocolate, they had been looking forward to eating chocolate).
In one sense, it may not be surprising that self-denial makes people long for the thing they cannot have. Yet, the Quoidbach and Dunn study shows that these people are actually happier in the end in part because they savor more. In a world where often greater availability does not lead to positive feelings and improved well-being, absence may make us fonder for the things we cannot have in the moment, leading to more happiness and a greater appreciation of them in the end.
Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 16489-16493.
Kurtz, J. L. (2008). Looking to the future to appreciate the present: The benefits of perceived temporal scarcity. Psychological Science, 19, 1238-1241.
Quoidbach, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2013). Give it up: A strategy for combatting hedonic adaptation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 563-568.