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 Tuesday, November 18, 2008 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Psychology professor seeks the sources of happiness
by Melanie O. Massengale

Happiness is found in experience rather than in possessions according to Leaf Van Boven, associate professor of psychology. The old proverb that memory is selective is true, for people gain the most satisfaction from experiences, filtering out unpleasant parts of their activities to reinterpret the whole in a more favorable light. “Experience is more self-defining than objects because the self is actively engaged,” said Van Boven. “Possessions are concrete and physically present, less prone to distortion than experiences, which are fleeting.” For example, a grueling outdoor excursion is much more memorable in the long run than is a new flat-screen television.

Van Boven’s conclusion grew out of a fundamental question about how emotions influence judgment and decisions. The work began during his tenure as a graduate student. Van Boven’s dissertation exploring the pursuit of happiness won the Martin E.P. Seligman Award for outstanding dissertation research in positive psychology. “Experiences help us connect with people,” Van Boven said. Social connection helps build a positive identity that leads the individual to look for still more experiences to share with others. “Social connections are strongly related to happiness and satisfaction with life. We gain greater satisfaction from the social contact that experiences offer,” he said.

Why does our society appear to emphasize material objects if experience is so much more rewarding? “There is a certain folk wisdom that can drive us to focus on material goods—possessions are easy to evaluate and compare as external rewards, obvious examples being money and status,” Van Boven said. “People are conscious of being outclassed, which gives rise to conspicuous consumption.” Van Boven noted that in one much discussed study, most people were willing to take a job with lower pay if it meant earning a higher status than their co-workers, presumably because people would rather have a higher status than higher salaries. Experiences, in contrast, are less prone to competitive pressures. In short, most individuals find that their experiences are more rewarding than objects partly because experiences foster successful social relationships.

Van Boven’s broader area of research concerns the emotional consequences of the judgments and decisions we make and the consequences of emotion for judgments and decisions. With collaborators at CU, he has examined how emotional arousal influences psychological distance (the sensation that people, places and events are “close” or “distant”) and how emotions such as anger can increase Americans’ politically polarized attitudes toward significant events such as Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Van Boven is pleased with the congenial research environment at CU-Boulder. “CU is tremendously supportive, with an amazing tendency to support research that matters both theoretically and practically in everyday life,” he said. “CU is intellectually invigorating and nurturing; my time here has made me a better scientist and educator. I am proud to be part of the such a fantastic institution.”

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