How prolonging a colonoscopy can make you happier

OR: How perception influences happiness and how you can train it.

While people have different ideas of happiness and where it comes from, one thing scientists today have concluded led me to think of happiness a muscle we can train. No, it’s not about a newly discovered part of our anatomy: what it boils down to is perception.

Each person is equipped with a complex series of nerves that take in, identify, and interpret information through our five senses. As this information is processed, it is often subject to distortions or illusions. Take these well-known images: Do you see an old or a young lady? Do you see a duck or a rabbit?

I, for one, see a duck rabbit trying to eat a young lady in vintage clothes.

These errors in perception are not limited to our five senses. We can change our perception to change how we feel about our experiences and our lives. It’s by studying these distortions and errors that scientists are charting out ways to better understand how we can improve our happiness — or as I say: how to train our happiness muscle. So here are three weirdly interesting scientific experiments that helped us shape hiMoment — the digital happiness gym.

For sale: Happiness. Only 10 cents.

If I asked you: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”, would you think I could bribe you into believing your life was better, using only 10 cents? A study done in 1983 by Norbert Schwarz showed exactly this.

Schwarz was a pioneer in researching how the evaluation of our lives is influenced by factors such as good weather, recalling positive life events, and lucky finds. When a group of students unexpectedly ‘found’ 10 cents (stealthy placed by researchers) on the way to a psychological evaluation, these 10 cents unknowingly influenced their reports on how satisfied they were with their lives. When compared with the control group of students who had not found any money, the money finders reported significantly higher satisfaction. The study showed that how people feel about their lives as a whole largely depends on their recent feelings. So taking a couple of cents and buying a coffee for yourself or someone else having a “bad day” might be enough to create a much needed shift in perspective.

Perhaps it seems obvious that positive influences can improve our perceived well-being, but many of us agree that life is not always rainbows and bunnies. There are many times where life is full of shit, when you look at it. So how do you train your happiness muscle when faced with these negative experiences? The answer lies in a colonoscopy.

The peak end rule

It’s very easy to predict that colonoscopies won’t make a person happier. They can, however, give us a good idea about what it is that people use to judge the quality of an experience.

I don’t know what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman expected to happen when he asked patients undergoing colonoscopies about their pain levels, but the results of this 1996 research were worth it. To explain his findings, let’s look at two sample patients, patient A and patient B.

Patient A’s colonoscopy was a short, very intense 10 minutes. He experienced significant pain throughout most of the procedure. Luckily, shortly after the pain was at its peak, the operation was over. Patient B’s colonoscopy was just as intense in its first 10 minutes. But while patient A’s pain was over after that, patient B had to endure 15 more minutes. And while the pain during those extra 15 minutes wasn’t as bad as before, it was nevertheless unpleasant. But, surprisingly, patient B reported the surgery to be less of a painful experience than patient A. Why was that?

What Kahneman found was that the evaluation of the operation was not influenced by the average pain throughout the procedure, or its total duration, but by how painful the procedure was at its peak moment and at its end — and it was here where B’s experience was much better than patient A’s. Kahneman dubbed this the “peak end rule”.

The peak end rule is luckily not limited to colonoscopies. When you experience an unpleasant moment, make sure that the end is as positive as you can possibly make it. Maybe that’s why it is customary in some cultures, like here in Austria, that people gather for food and drinks after a funeral and — to the shock of some — even laugh together.

Even when it comes to our evaluation of positive experiences, the peak end rule has advice to offer. In such cases, it is not about prolonging, but to end at the right time — at the peak. So next time when you are at a New Year’s Eve party, leave right after the fireworks, even if it seems counter-intuitive. There is a German proverb that can be translated to “it’s best to leave when things are at their best”. It may as well be a recommendation in Kahneman’s research paper on the peak end rule.

Remembering the hiMoments

There is one more study I need to tell you about. It’s the one that helped me develop hiMoment. In this study, the participants were classified into people that considered themselves happy and people that considered themselves unhappy. Participants of both groups were asked to tell their life stories. The researchers then counted the number of positive and negative moments in their lives.

Much to my surprise, participants of both groups had a similar count of positive and negative moments: Marriage, kids, deaths of close family members, promotions and dismissals, all occurring in equal amounts.

But then why are some people happier than others? According to this study, it is because people of the “happy group” focused their awareness (perception) on the many good moments in their lives.

After reading this study four and a half years ago, I asked myself if writing down consistently what was the best moment of my day would redirect my awareness to the good things in my life.

The results of this self-experiment were astonishing: It took me 20 minutes to come up with the best moment of my first day. Over the next days, it gradually took less time. After two weeks, I could recall several good moments per day and found it difficult to choose the best. Another two weeks later I started to notice good moments while they were happening and could enjoy them more intensively (Hi there, moment! — hiMoment). Four weeks into my little experiment and my life seemed to have changed: I got up more easily in the morning, greeted by thoughts of all the great things that could happen. I performed better at my job (and started to enjoy it). Even after long days of work, I came home with more energy. I started to go out and pursue my interests more often. Not all of my days were good, but somehow this new focus made bad things much easier to digest.

Eventually, I realized I had successfully hacked my own perception and happiness. And soon, you can too.

Next time, I want to talk more about two topics that further shaped the hiMoment method: decision-making and flow. And because it’s not just about the peak, but the end : Here’s a picture of a duck attacking a young lady.

The duck doesn’t look like anything like a rabbit though. I guess that solves that riddle.