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Banking on Happiness

UMD Research Finds People Try to Store Happy Moments to Cope With Bad Ones

By Carrie Handwerker

Smiling piggy bank

New UMD research shows that while it's unclear how well the tactic actually works, people act on the belief they can store up happiness from good moments to help get through bad ones.

Photo by iStock

Wouldn’t it be nice to revel in happy moments, soaking them in and storing them away to help you through future sadness? New University of Maryland research finds that many people actively try to do just that: bank their happiness in hopes it will help them cope with a sad event later.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research, marketing Assistant Professor Ali Faraji-Rad and co-author Leonard Lee of the National University of Singapore looked at how people prepare when they know that difficult times are coming.

“It’s well documented in marketing and consumer behavior research that when people are sad, they try to do things to make themselves happier—whether it’s shopping, eating, watching comedies,” Faraji-Rad said. “Do people have this belief that they can do things to offset the sadness or be able to withstand the sadness when it comes?”

Faraji-Rad’s sister helped to spark the research. He said that as a huge fan of the television phenomenon “Game of Thrones,” she would do things like binge on chocolate to withstand the inevitable sad scenes she’d watch in the next episode of the series, which was notorious for killing off main characters without warning.

He and Lee ran experiments using songs and movie clips to test whether knowing something sad was approaching would increase the likelihood that, when given a choice, participants would go for a happy entertainment option. In some studies, they also tested whether people would draw on positive memories when faced with upcoming sadness, and whether consumers tended to draw on this banked happiness or just try to manage their mood in reaction to a sad event.

“What we show is that many people do have this lay belief that you can actually bank happiness,” Faraji-Rad said.

They also looked at people’s tendency to be future-oriented or live more in the present, finding that future-looking consumers are more likely to bank happiness.

“We already know that happy memories are helpful when you have sadness,” Faraji-Rad said. “People want to create this resource of happy memories that they can tap into. Whenever they are feeling sad, drawing on those memories and that nostalgia can make people feel better.”

Positive moods also can be a buffer, he said—but just in the short-term. So if you’re feeling good now, it helps while you are feeling sad later. But usually that mood quickly dissipates, and that’s when memories kick in.

While the research confirms that people bank happiness, it stops short of determining how well it actually works.

“At this stage, we don’t have enough research to say whether it’s good to do this,” Faraji-Rad says. “We’re explaining that banking happiness can happen so consumers can be aware of their own behavior and what’s driving it.”

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