Finding Happiness

Kevin Lewis

November 15, 2020

Nostalgia relieves the disillusioned mind
Paul Maher, Eric Igou & Wijnand van Tilburg
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming


Disillusionment arises when life experiences strongly discredited positive assumptions or deeply help beliefs. Under these conditions, people feel lost, confused, and disconnected from their social environments. Ultimately, disillusioned individuals struggle to maintain meaning and inhabit a state of existential concern. However, the past can provide solace as a refuge of meaning and social connection. Indeed, nostalgic reflection is a commonly cited source of meaning in life. Accordingly, we investigated if disillusioned people could rely on nostalgic reverie to bolster, or reestablish, diminished perceptions of meaning, in three experiments. In Study 1, we confirmed that experimentally induced disillusionment lowers perceptions of meaning. In Study 2, induced disillusionment caused people to retrieve nostalgic events in a memory recall task, and feelings of nostalgia subsequently suppressed the effect of disillusionment on meaning in life. Finally, in Study 3, we manipulated both disillusionment and nostalgia, before measuring meaningfulness. Only disillusioned participants who did not engage in nostalgic reflection suffered meaning-loss. These results provide convergent evidence for the nostalgia-as-meaning resource hypothesis and further support the well-established psychological benefits of nostalgia. Our findings delineate a common story of our time; disillusioned citizens can replenish and reaffirm meaning in thoughts of past fondness and glory.

Work Values Shape the Relationship Between Stress and (Un)Happiness
George Ward et al.
Harvard Working Paper, September 2020


While global wealth has risen over the past few decades, this has not translated into a less stressful life for most people. In fact, stress has risen for people worldwide. Across six studies — including large-scale survey data from over 150 countries — we show that the typically observed negative association between stress and unhappiness depends critically on the value that people place on work. Using various measures of work values — including individual and area-level historical Protestantism, peer-group working hours, and self-reported measures — we show that the strength of the negative impact of stress on subjective well-being depends upon the extent to which individuals, societies, and cultures more broadly value productive work as a good in itself. These findings emphasize the importance of the “psychological fit” between actions and values in shaping subjective well-being. Using large-scale time-use data, we show that the moderating role of work values can be largely explained by the extent to which these values shape how enjoyable leisure activities are, rather than how they affect people’s experience of work-related activities themselves.

Participation in life-review playback theater enhances mental health of community-dwelling older adults: A randomized controlled trial
Shoshi Keisari et al.
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, forthcoming


Playback theater is a form of improvisational theater that combines artistic expression with an exploration of life stories in a group creative process. The goal of the current study was to examine an integrative intervention for older adults, which includes participation in playback theater in accordance with the life-review method. We examined the effect of the intervention on the positive and negative aspects of mental health among community-dwelling older adults in adult day centers. In a randomized controlled trial, data were collected from 78 participants consisting of older adults in 4 adult day centers (Mage = 79.60 years, SD = 6.89: range = 63–96), randomly assigned to a 12-week playback theater group or care-as-usual group. The participants reported on aspects of mental health and mental illness before, immediately after, and 3 months after the intervention. The results show a significant Time × Group interaction, validating the intervention’s effectiveness for improving positive mental health indices: self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships with others, satisfaction with relationships, current well-being, positive affect, meaning in life, satisfaction with life, and self-esteem as well as depressive symptoms. This improvement remained stable 3 months after the intervention. Our findings confirm that a structured short-term creative group intervention, which integrates life review with playback theater participation, induces a strong and persistent positive psychological effect in community-dwelling older adults. The current study suggests that this type of creative intervention in the community may provide an opportunity for older adults to flourish and experience psychological growth.

Is More Always Better? Examining the Nonlinear Association of Social Contact Frequency With Physical Health and Longevity
Olga Stavrova & Dongning Ren
Social Psychological and Personality Science, forthcoming


Frequent social contact has been associated with better health and longer life. It remains unclear though whether there is an optimal contact frequency, beyond which contact is no longer positively associated with health and longevity. The present research explored this question by examining nonlinear associations of social contact frequency with health and longevity. Study 1 (N ∼ 350,000) demonstrated that once the frequency of social contact reached a moderate level (monthly or weekly), its positive association with health flattened out. Study 2 (N ∼ 50,000) extended these findings to longitudinal and mortality data: Although low contact frequency was associated with poor health and low survival rates, increasing the frequency of social interactions beyond a moderate level (monthly or weekly) was no longer associated with better health and longevity and, in some cases, was even related to worse health and increased mortality risks.

Expectancy Violation Drives Memory Boost for Stressful Events
Felix Kalbe et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Stressful events are often vividly remembered. Although generally adaptive to survival, this emotional-memory enhancement may contribute to stress-related disorders. We tested here whether the enhanced memory for stressful events is due to the expectancy violation evoked by these events. Ninety-four men and women underwent a stressful or control episode. Critically, to manipulate the degree of expectancy violation, we gave participants either detailed or minimal information about the stressor. Although the subjective and hormonal stress responses were comparable in informed and uninformed participants, prior information about the stressor abolished the memory advantage for core features of the stressful event, tested 7 days later. Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, we further linked the expectancy violation and memory formation under stress to the inferior temporal cortex. These data are the first to show that detailed information about an upcoming stressor and, by implication, a reduced expectancy violation attenuates the memory for stressful events.

The Age Profile of Life-satisfaction After Age 65 in the U.S.
Péter Hudomiet, Michael Hurd & Susann Rohwedder
NBER Working Paper, October 2020


Although income and wealth are frequently used as indicators of well-being, they are increasingly augmented with subjective measures such as life satisfaction to capture broader dimensions of individuals’ well-being. Based on data from large surveys of individuals, life satisfaction in cross-section increases with age beyond retirement into advanced old age. It may seem puzzling that average life satisfaction would be higher at older ages because older individuals are more likely to experience chronic or acute health conditions, or the loss of a spouse. Accordingly, this empirical pattern has been called the “paradox of well-being.” We examine the age profile of life satisfaction of the U.S. population age 65 and older in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and also find increasing life satisfaction at older ages in cross-section. But based on the longitudinal dimension of the HRS life satisfaction significantly declines with age and the rate of decline accelerates with age. Widowing and health shocks play important roles in this decline. We reconcile the cross-section and longitudinal measurements by showing that both differential mortality and differential non-response bias the cross-sectional age profile upward: individuals with higher life satisfaction and in better health tend to live longer and to remain in the survey, causing average values to increase. We conclude that the optimistic view about increasing life satisfaction at older ages based on cross-sectional data is not warranted.


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