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Not All Happiness Is the Same

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If you were to stop people randomly on the street and ask them if they were happy, chances are most of them would say, "Yes." Most of us are happy most of the time.

What exactly does it mean to be happy, though?

An interesting paper by Cassie Mogilner, Jennifer Aaker, and Sepandar Kamvar in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that there may be two distinct kinds of happiness. One kind of happiness is a sense of calm well-being. A person sitting by a swimming pool relaxing in the sun is happy in this sense. A second kind of happiness is a feeling of pleasant excitement. A person dancing with friends at a club on a Saturday night is experiencing this kind of happiness.

An interesting aspect of these kinds of happiness is that they seem to be related to people's focus on time. The calm type of happiness is most associated with a focus on the present moment. The excited type of happiness is most associated with a focus on possibilities in the future. As a result, young people are more likely to experience the excited kind of happiness than older people. Older people (who are generally less focused on the future) are more likely to experience the calm type of happiness.

Why does this matter?

These researchers find that the kind of happiness you are experiencing affects the types of products you are interested in buying.

In one study, college-age participants (who are most likely to experience excited happiness naturally) either participated in a control condition that involved a breathing exercise or a meditation condition, in which people were told to focus on the present moment and to let the past and future slip away. The students in the control condition tended to rate that they were feeling more excited than calm, while those in the meditation condition rated themselves as feeling more calm than excited. At the end of the study, as participants were packing up to leave, they were given the chance to select one of two types of tea. One type of tea was described as being a relaxing blend of chamomile and mint, while the other was described as being a refreshing peppermint blend. Participants in the control condition selected the refreshing tea about 60 percent of the time, while those in the meditation condition selected the calming tea about 60 percent of the time.

In a second study, older adults (who are most likely to experience calm happiness) did a sentence unscrambling task. The sentences in the control group had no particular focus. The sentences in the experimental group used many words focused on the future. These sentence unscrambling tasks are well-known to influence what people are thinking about without their awareness.

Later participants listened to two versions of the same song. One version was judged by independent listeners to be much calmer than the other. After listening to the songs and rating them, participants were given the opportunity to select one version of the song as a free mp3 download.

The participants in the control condition rated themselves as being mostly calm rather than excited. They also selected the calm version of the song about 60 percent of the time. The participants primed to think about the future rated themselves as more excited than calm. They also selected the exciting version of the song about 60 percent of the time.

Putting these results together, then, it seems that we experience two different kinds of happiness. The calm type of happiness is related to a focus on the present moment and is most common in older adults. The excited type of happiness is related to a focus on the future and is most common in younger adults.

Although we are unaware of it, these types of happiness also affect our preferences. We seem to like products that will maintain the type of happiness we are experiencing right now. So, if we are experiencing calm happiness, we select calm products. If we are experiencing excited happiness, we select exciting products.

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