Why Obligation Is So Good For You

Sunday 13 July 2014 0 comments

For a survey, German students were divided into two groups. One group answered these two questions:

How happy are you these days?

How many dates did you have last month?

There was no correlation between their happiness and the number of dates they had. The second group answered the same two questions, but in the opposite order:

How many dates did you have last month?

How happy are you these days?

As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, it turns out that the ordering of those two questions mattered greatly. When students were asked about their number of dates first, the correlation between answers was "about as high as correlations between psychological measures get."

The reason for this is simple: the dating question framed the happiness question, but not vice versa. When you think about your happiness by itself, it's based on your life as a whole (a great number of factors), but when it follows the dating question, you're almost certainly going to place more weight on your happiness in the romantic aspect of your life than other areas.

If a question is difficult to answer, we'll often answer a related, but easier question without realizing it, according to Kahneman. That's what the students in the survey did. Instead of objectively evaluating their happiness in an evenly weighted manner as usual, they seemed to answer the easier question of, "Are you happy about your romantic life?" Romance was primed in their minds by the first question.

What interests me is how we can use this brain tendency to our advantage. Obligation is purposefully thinking about the blessings in your life. If you're continually or often thinking of the things going well for you, guess what? Your answer to the "Am I happy?" question — which we all ask ourselves periodically — will bend more to "yes." But this isn't just a "cheap" way to think you're happier.

Happiness is a state of mind, and that means your answer to the question, "Am I happy?" is going to be accurate. In other words, if you think you're happier, it means you are happier! Happiness is subjective and completely up to you.

Looking at life broadly, we all have problems and blessings, at all times. There will never be a time when there's nothing to be thankful for. There will never be a time when your life is without flaws. This leaves the decision up to you — which side will you focus on? Will you let your problems dominate your mind or will you focus on the good things you have now?

So how can you be more grateful? The best solutions are simple ones. Obligation is as simple and easy as anything, but rarely practiced.

With pen and paper or in your head, slowly sift through the categories of your life: finances, relationships, living situation, health, work life, and family life. When you like your life in a category, take a moment to zoom in and reflect on it. Think about how fortunate you are to be doing well in this area. Be grateful for it. That's it. Practice this often, and you'll be surprised at the difference it makes in your life.

And if you'd like to make gratefulness a healthy lifelong habit, look at the best-selling Mini Habits book for a strategy that won't fail you.
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