Ayn Rand in the Happy Lab

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Sonya Lyubomirsky ran an experiment where participants were given a task and then received a performance rating — and were told another participant’s performance rating, too. But — suprise! — the performance ratings weren’t related to their actual performance.

Their reaction depended on how happy they already were, before the experiment:

To analyze the data, I divided my participants into those who, before performing, reported being very happy and those who reported being relatively unhappy. When I examined the “before” and “after” data of my very happy participants, I found that those who learned that they had performed very poorly reported feeling less positive, less confident, and more sad after the study was over. Their reaction to ostensible failure was perfectly natural and not at all surprising. By contrast, the very happy participants who learned that they had performed extremely well (a 6 out of 7) subsequently felt better on all dimensions, and, notably, learning that someone did even better did not dilute the pleasure of their ostensible success.

Things turn Randian, Bryan Caplan says, when they looked at the unhappy participants, who resembled Randian villains:

The results for my unhappiest participants, however, were dramatic. Their reactions, it appears, were governed more by the reviews they had given their peers than by their own feedback. Indeed, the study paints a stark and quite unpleasant portrait of an unhappy person. My unhappiest volunteers reported feeling happier and more secure when they received a poor evaluation (but heard that their peer did even worse) than when they had received an excellent evaluation (but heard that their peer did even better). It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: “For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself… One’s friends must fail.”

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