Psychologist explains why your life is likely to be ” worse”

June 19, 1995

NEW YORK—If you’re dissatisfied, don’t worry. No matter how good life is, a University of Michigan psychologist says, the way the mind works may rob you of a sense of satisfaction.

According to Prof. Norbert Schwarz, a research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research, how good we feel about our lives bears little relation to how good our lives are by objective standards. Instead, we often decide whether things have changed and in what direction by comparing the present to the past—a strategy that encourages pessimism.

“Our present problems were often not part of the past, while the problems of the past do not come to mind when we consider our current worries,” Schwarz explains. ” So the past has a good chance of being remembered as the ” good old days.’

“But when we compare the past to the present, we notice that many things that bothered us in the past are no longer a problem, making the present look brighter. ”

Schwarz organized an invited symposium on ” Mental Construal in Social Judgments” (how people decide if their lives have changed and if any changes are for better or worse, among other issues) to be held July 1 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in New York City.

Among the many counter-intuitive findings Schwarz and colleagues will be discussing: –We’re more likely to compare the present to the past than vice versa. It’s an unfortunate mental habit that makes things look gloomier than they would if we compared the past to the present. ” Comparisons of the present to the past are likely to reveal the shortcomings rather than the accomplishments of the present,” Schwarz says.

Not only do our spontaneous comparisons tend to emphasize negative aspects of the present, Schwarz points out, but our dissatisfaction is compounded by the psychological tendency to give more weight to losses than to gains. –In deciding whether things have changed for better or for worse, we not only compare our present situation to the past, but also compare our own situation to that of others.

According to Schwarz, negative social comparisons often override positive comparisons of one’s own situation over time. Even if we’re making more money now than we ever did before, for example, we’ll still probably feel that things are getting worse if we look around and see other people who are making a lot more.

We’re not entirely at the mercy of our traitor minds, however. Schwarz offers the following tips to cultivate a sense of well-being, a feeling that we’re not just getting older, but our lives are actually getting better.

Don’t bury bad memories from the past. Remember them, but not too vividly. ” Our appreciation of the present may benefit from the contrast with negative memories of the past,” he says, ” provided that we keep those memories sufficiently pallid. ” Bad memories that are too clear may have the opposite effect. They put you in a bad mood, which overpowers the feeling that all’s right with the present.

Let yourself reminisce about ” the good old days” in great detail. Instead of making you dissatisfied with the present, the warm glow of good feelings you once had will brighten your dim view of the present, Schwarz says. ” But if you keep those good memories pallid, you may suffer from contrast that makes the present look bad. Thus, the secret is to savor the good memories in detail but to keep the bad ones abstract. ”

Recognize that all sorts of irrelevant factors may be affecting whether you feel that life is getting worse or better. ” In most studies, people are unrealistically optimistic about their own future and about the outcomes it has in store for them,” Schwarz says. ” In general, we assume that positive things are more (and negative things less) likely to happen to ourselves than to happen to others. Not surprisingly, this optimism is increased when we’re elated and decreased when we’re depressed. ”

We also tend to feel that life is getting better when the sun is shining, Schwarz notes, and that it’s getting worse on days that are overcast. Even something as trivial as finding a lost coin on the office copy machine can make us feel happier about life in general for up to 30 minutes, he has found.

Schwarz notes that these insights are potentially useful to politicians interested in what he ironically terms ” a very cost-efficient social improvement program. ”

“To the extent that politicians can convince their electorate that things are really changing for the better,” Schwarz notes, ” voters may detect evidence for this change by reconstructing their past. After all, you can always get what you want by revising your beliefs about what you had.