How to Think Yourself into a Happy Place

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Sometimes happiness is absolute: you land your dream job or the perfect girl. You’re psyched. But sometimes the situation isn’t so clear cut: you got the job you wanted, but not at the salary you’d hoped. Still happy?

A new study suggests that, yes, win or lose, people tend to be happy — but for “losers,” it takes some extra mental effort to get there.

To examine this phenomenon, researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard University and the University of Virginia conducted a series of experiments. In the first, 297 people randomly selected on the streets of Boston were given two-sided scratch-off lottery tickets, valued at $1, $3, $5 or $7. The volunteers scratched off one side to reveal their prize; then they were asked to scratch off the other side — just to see what they’d missed. (More on For Mental Health, Having a Bad Job Is Worse than No Job At All)

The “winners” were those who originally scratched off the larger sum. “Losers” were those who missed out on the bigger jackpot. After scratching the tickets, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires rating their happiness and regret.

Overall, the winners predictably reported higher levels of happiness than the losers, and they were pretty much equally happy no matter how much money they’d won — those who won $3 were just as happy as those who won $7.

Losers were happy too — after all, they still won money — but their level of joy depended on how much they’d gained. Losers who won $3 were less happy than those who won $5. Researchers interpreted this as evidence that losers were somehow rationalizing their way into a state happiness. (More on How Happy Teen Years Can Lead to Divorce)

“When you win something, it’s always a positive experience,” lead researcher Karim S. Kassam, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But if there’s this tinge of negative effect, that motivates people to rationalize, to re-frame things in a way that will make them happy.”

To confirm the thinking effect, the researchers tried another experiment: over a series of trials, 31 participants were asked to memorize a two- or eight-digit number and then choose one of two prize-money boxes that appeared on a screen. The participants were told that the researcher would later randomly select a trial and give them the monetary reward contained in their chosen box. Then both boxes were opened. The amount the participants received was predetermined to be either $3 or $5, and the task was rigged so that whatever the amount, the participant always received the smaller of the two prize-money boxes. That is, they were always losers. (More on 5 Ways to Stop Stressing and Become Happier and More Confident)

In this case, researchers found that happiness was again tied to the amount received, except when participants had to memorize the long numbers. When people were forced to focus on another thinking task, they were equally happy with either sum they received — even though it was the “losing” amount.

The research suggests that happiness is relative. It also suggests an easy way to boost your own happiness quotient: be thankful for what you have and don’t measure your gains against those of others. Proving that, despite what Charlie Sheen says, you can still be happy — even if you’re losing. If all else fails, simply distract your brain from sneaking negative thoughts.