When students open college acceptance letters next spring, many may be ecstatic. But research suggests the intensity of their happiness will be determined by both the news they receive and the timing of its arrival.
Quite often, we have strong expectations about how events in our lives should unfold and how we should feel as they do. These “mental scripts” are usually very useful, helping us navigate a wide variety of social situations. Besides guiding our reactions to college acceptance letters, the scripts prevent us, say, from laughing out loud during a funeral even if we’re suddenly reminded of a hilarious joke.
However, such scripts can also sometimes undermine our ability to fully rejoice at good news and interfere with our sense of purpose. Professor Ayelet Fishbach and PhD student Nadav Klein suggest that we miss out on opportunities to feel fully happy when the timing of good news violates our mental scripts.
Fishbach and Klein claim that people expect to be happy only after a goal has been achieved. When we instead prematurely learn that a goal will be achieved, we’re less happy.
In one lab study testing this idea, the authors simulated an internship application process, a context highly pertinent for their undergraduate subjects. Participants were first asked to complete an application for a summer internship at a fictional consulting company, before waiting by the computer for admission results.
After a few minutes, some of them saw a message with an “unofficial hiring decision,” telling them whether their application had been accepted or rejected and that they would receive an official letter shortly. Other participants only received the official letter, which arrived two minutes later.
Although the news included in the unofficial and official messages was essentially identical, the researchers observed that people who received the early notice followed by an official acceptance letter were less happy than those who only received the formal letter. Interestingly, people who received the unofficial message were less happy both upon receiving this message as well as upon receiving the official acceptance letter. Additional studies conducted in other contexts found that participants who received early information about achieving a goal also evaluated the goal less highly in retrospect—for example, they cared less about winning a simple card game after receiving early information that they had won.
Thus, when the right news comes at the wrong time, happiness is somewhat muted. This can undermine people’s excitement about their goals—and make them less inclined to pursue the same or related goals in the future.
These studies follow other research that suggests people aiming to maximize their happiness often fail to do so. Professor Christopher K. Hsee has found that people, who presumably want to be as happy as they can, sometimes prefer idleness when activity would make them happier. Likewise, the University of British Columbia’s Elizabeth Dunn has found that people think that spending money on themselves will make them happier, while the opposite is often true.
To maximize your own happiness, consider relaxing your expectations for an event. If you are told you’re being hired for a new job, don’t wait until the formal offer to be happy—celebrate now, as that excitement you feel might be gone as the final letter comes in.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the New Paths to Purpose blog.