Did you know that being happy about your past might make you more prone to eating candy than being hopeful about your future? According to Karen Page Winterich of Pennsylvania State University and Kelly Haws of Texas A&M, happy people reach for candies more often than hopeful people, who are less likely to seek out unhealthy snacks.
Winterich and Haws based their findings on four studies, whose results were published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The work appeared online March 18, 2011.
This work gives us the scenario of Wendy, an office worker who heads for a candy bar treat when she’s pleased about her work day. But sometimes, when she’s pleased because of anticipation of something great coming up, she reaches for a healthy fruit snack instead. Wendy – who defies all rational behavior by choosing fruit over chocolate under any conditions – is the authors’ example of the confusing conduct of happy people. Wendy reveals that what matters is if they’re retrospectively happy (had a great workday!) or hopeful (looking forward to this day!).
Other research has linked sad feelings to bad eating (pint-of-Haagen-Dazs days, anyone?), but Wendy’s a happy gal. Winterich and Haws wanted to tease out how the different kinds of happy might be linked to healthy or not-so-healthy food choices. In one of four studies, they offered up M&Ms to participants. People who felt hopeful (a future sort of happiness) ate fewer candies than people who felt pride about an accomplishment (a past-oriented happiness). In other words, based on these findings, if you’re feeling all happy about something you’ve done lately, stay away from the vending machines.
But what if your anticipation is about an upcoming negative event, like planning to do your taxes tomorrow. First of all, you’re late. Second of all, Winterich and Page tested that. Again, positive anticipation was linked to greater self-control, while negative anticipation … where did I put that pint of Haagen Dazs?
The authors opened their paper with their story of Wendy, but they end it talking to the reader:
So, the next time you’re feeling well, don’t focus too much on all the good things in the past. Instead, keep that positive glow and focus on your future, especially all the good things you imagine to come. Your waistline will thank you.
They place their work in the context of the oft-cited obesity epidemic, saying that understanding this link between emotion and what we eat is “critical.”
It’s certainly interesting advice to avoid experiencing pride in your achievements as a way to keep your waist circumference smaller. Don’t know about you, but whether I’m hopeful or happy (or sad or mad or just breathing), I’m going to pick chocolate over fruit every time, in spite of the advice Winterich and Haws have for happy or hopeful readers about reaching for those M&Ms.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."