The 4 Emotional Traps That Are Really Making Americans Miserable

Emotional Traps That Are Making Americans Miserable Americans are unhappy. Consumer confidence tumbled unexpectedly to its lowest level in two-and-a-half years in October, as Americans fretted over the outlook for employment and wages, the Conference Board reported Tuesday.

That followed last week's news that the "misery index" had hit a 28-year high. The misery index, created by an economist in the 1960s, combines the unemployment rate with the inflation rate. It's based on the simple notion that if prices are rising while more people are out of work, misery abounds.

But psychologically, there's more at work than just jobs and money. Here's a look at the underlying emotions that are really getting us down -- and some insights from subjective well-being research that can help cheer us up.

1. Uncertainty

A volatile stock market, concerns about job security, rising costs of health care, food and other basics -- they all add up to a cloud of uncertainty. And humans hate uncertainty.

Economist Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution studied Americans at the beginning and late stages of the economic crisis that began in late 2007. She found happiness levels were higher in June 2009 than in January 2008, although living standards were markedly higher in 2008.

That's because in early 2008, nobody had any clue about the scope of the economic storm the U.S. was sailing into, Graham suggests. "The idea is, 'I'm poorer than I was before, but now I know what I've got to deal with,'" she explains.

Solution? Focus on what you can control: managing spending, boosting income by moonlighting or selling goods on eBay or Craigslist, evaluating how much risk you are really comfortable with, and reducing investment fees.

2. Status

Losing a job or a financial cushion can also cause people to feel like they've suffered a loss of status. Evolutionary biologists suggest our drive for prestige derives from a physiological need that played an important role in early primate survival: The higher one's status, the larger a share of key resources -- i.e., food -- one received in competitive situations.

The alpha-ancestors survived better, lived longer, and left more healthy offspring, preserving their genes in the population. For this reason, our biology evolved to make us keenly attuned to status, says Denise Cummins, an author who teaches psychology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Animals higher up in the hierarchy have lower levels of stress hormones -- like cortisol and adrenaline -- and higher levels of blissful hormones like serotonin. In short, we're biochemically wired to obsess about status. "Even small changes in status -- someone snubs you -- will cause a response in the endocrine system," Cummins says. "Large, precipitous changes in status can have massive effects." They include cardiovascular stress, immune system dysfunction and a shift in the way the body metabolizes sugar and stores fat.

Solution? Change your reference group. A shift in relative status hits us the hardest. So if you get laid off, don't hang out at cocktail parties with your former professional peers who are doing well. Instead, network with those people one on one, and look for social gatherings with a less career-oriented focus.

3. Volatility

Saving regularly for retirement in a 401(k) can offer a sense of confidence and security about the future. On the other hand, when that money goes into the stock market -- with its stomach-churning ups and downs -- we can feel a terrible sense of powerlessness. And that can inspire actions that compound the misery.

Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University and Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas-Austin found that in an effort to restore a psychological sense of control, powerless people see patterns and make connections that aren't there. (The classic example is embracing superstitions, such as baseball player Jason Giambi's revelation that he wears a gold lamé thong to break out of bad slumps.)

Researchers find that worries about volatility can lead us to distort information -- and bad information leads to bad decisions. Galinsky and Whitson had two groups of people read different material about the stock market. One piece was headlined "Smooth Sailing Ahead for Investors" and discussed why the markets would be stable, while the other blared "Rough Seas Ahead for Investors," and described a volatile, unpredictable market. Participants then read analysts' comments about two anonymous companies. Company A had twice as many comments as Company B, but both had an equal percentage of positive reviews (about two-thirds).

When asked to recall how often bad things were written about company B, those who were primed to think the market would be stable were very accurate. Those primed to feel the market was unpredictable and uncontrollable reported 25% more bad news than they actually read. Asked whether they would invest, 58% of those who thought the market would be stable said they would buy Company B -- compared to 25% of those primed for volatility. Their fear led them to see false patterns in the data, which guided their subsequent decisions.

Solution: While thong-wearing can be a harmless (if uncomfortable) ritual for a pro athlete, applying superstitions and distorted thinking to investing can be much more painful. In his book Your Money & Your Brain, author Jason Zweig advises investors to create an "investment policy statement" to guide them through good times and bad. Set some guidelines to rein in bad decision-making during times of volatility -- and stick to them.

4. Rumination

If you find yourself dwelling endlessly on your misery, either make a change or create a diversion. Researchers have found there are two kinds of rumination -- analytical and experiential. The former can be constructive, because it leads to possible solutions (i.e., I have to pay off this credit card debt, so I'll get a part-time job over the holidays.)

By contrast, experiential rumination can exacerbate depression, impair problem solving, and alienate supporters, as loved ones get tired of the negativity, researchers found. When presented with hypothetical negative life events, such people tend to pick gloomier and more distorted interpretations, minimize their successes, and overgeneralize from their failures.

Ruminating leads to procrastination, which can compound the initial problem, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at University of California-Riverside. She and several co-researchers found female ruminators with breast cancer symptoms experienced greater distress, so they delayed seeking a diagnosis -- waiting more than two months longer than non-ruminators to report symptoms to a doctor.

Solution: Diverting your attention can break a cycle of rumination and lead to clearer decisions. Read, play sports, meditate, volunteer or spend time with friends -- though not with other ruminators, nor with people who might remind you of a fall in status.

And practice gratitude. Write down your list of worries, from largest to smallest. Then compose a second list of everything you are most grateful for. Consider whether you would give up anything on your grateful list to make something on your worry list disappear. Odds are the answer will be no -- and maybe your personal misery index will improve just a little bit.

Struggling with a personal finance situation? I welcome your questions but it's also about your wisdom, ideas, and experiences that may help other readers. Email me at You can also follow me on Twitter @MoneyHappiness.

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An example of #2, Status ... a friend who was unemployed had to catch a flight for an interviews in San Jose (Silicon Valley) and at the airport, he had to check in with the regular folks (he had to check a bag for six days away) and clerks behind the counter would barely acknowledge him. That really struck him because he was once a top rank frequent flier and talked to them on a regular basis, almost collegial. But not making his miles/legs the year that he got cut, he lost status for the calendar year after and since. From Platinum Card to just another chump in steerage. :(

January 26 2012 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Researchers find that worries about volatility can lead us to distort information ... about this is sometimes but not all the time :).

October 31 2011 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As always, and it REALLY has never been any different: "Things are never as bad or good as they seem." If misery abounds, it is partially because we have a 24/7 communication link to practically everyone and every place on the planet. Never have folks been so gripped by what is happening in Europe, financially or in Libya, politically and a large part of the anxiety is because we hear and see way too much "information." Actually, a lot of this "information" is noise and a distraction to the underlying fundamentals of our true, authentic, daily lives. Yes, it does matter, but not as much as people allow it to do so. I like the notion of writing down one's purpose, goals, etc. If you're gonna make changes, you have to start with a plan and be willing to think big and make big changes. Fortunately, at least in America, the vast majority of people have incredible opportunities--they need to turn-off Fox News, CNBC, Bravo and face their lives in all its complexity and simply take a step at a time. We can make it !

October 28 2011 at 7:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have never seen ALL the governments so impossibly lost and irresponsible. So their solution to any crisis? Print up money and make people feel good for a week or two, and pass the debt on to the future tax payers! Does anyone think for a second this is responsible? Shouldnt our governments quit acting like dizzy blondes with a credit cards? Shouldnt they have a sprinkling of common sense and fiscal honesty?
If our governments would live within their budgets, quit giving themselves special perks and living outside the realm of the rest of us, our economies would finally collapse... for a while. THEN, and ONLY THEN, can we actually start to shrink the governments and get back on track with ... get this... COMMON SENSE AND FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY! WHOA!
I think people are right.... we need to keep voting everyone in there out, unless they are screaming to be responsible and shrink our bloated, self serving, azhole government.

October 27 2011 at 3:36 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Margaret Opine

I didn't like this article and anthropology is my passion. I think this view bothered me the most: "The alpha-ancestors survived better, lived longer, and left more healthy offspring, preserving their genes in the population." [That's a cultural view.] There is one study among primate studies that says the role of the alpha males cause their organs to deteriorate faster and fall prey to diseases but then the same study claimed that beta males suffer such tremendous stress from fear of the alpha males that their organs deteriorated and depression is highly common. From a very young age my interest in anthropology led me to think that the beta male doesn't do badly: he gets far more sex than the alpha male who has to be on patrol (constantly) to maintain his territory. He is away a lot competing with other alpha males. I consider this view to be far more real. An alpha male may be held in high esteem for his administrative and managerial qualities and aspirations but in the greatest scheme of things it is the beta male who is getting the most sex and generating the most offspring and I do not accept the premise that those offspring have some kind of low-line genes. I heard a comedian say, his name is Sinbad, "Hard times. We know about hard times." Sinbad is about fifty-two years of age. "We've been through hard times before. But you young people think the world has come to an end because you can't get the new ipod. You need to accept this economic situation and learn how to live through hard-times because they will come again. Hard Times is a fact of reality. You young people need to get real.” And I say, they need to keep the guide to Common Sense nearby for reference.

I come from a place that taught family is gold. We lag in practicing those values today even though we believe in 'unconditional love.' Parents complain about the lack of mere respect; some are experiencing disrespectful behavior from their young. But then, there is a study indicating that some parents today are foregoing serious savings in preparation for their retirement; they are giving funds to their adult children to help them out. One mother sold the family home and helped her son to move into a large residence in a brand new residential community, about twelve years ago. Against the advice of everyone she had to help her son rise to the status his older brother was enjoying. (The older brother had a wife that was earning six figures at the time; now she is unemployed and they had to downsize their life.) This mother of five lost her retirement egg because the son mismanaged the funds and the house was bought under sub-prime conditions. Did it tear the family apart? No. It was difficult but the rift didn't last because other members of the family are far more astute and they help this old mother. They are older and have experienced hard times before while the younger brother has not and believed he was dealing with a fair and square (& absolute) reality.

October 27 2011 at 11:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

1. Being a Marxist posing as a whack jib, Socialist, progressive, liberal, Democrat
2. Protesting on Wall Street and being forced to crap on cop cars by union thugs to get paid by Obama for doing so.
3. Voting for any Democrat especially Obama and then doing too much dope and tequila shooters to remember.
4. Not knowing you were an insane, stupid, basement dweller on welfare while doing 1-3 above and not caring about anything or anyone except your heroes, Che, Fidel, Mao, Stalin and Kim Jung Ill

October 27 2011 at 11:27 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

5. Liberals

October 27 2011 at 12:36 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Morris Cantonitis

The United States of America is GUILTY of failing to protect it and the worlds investors from Wall Alley PIGG terrorism and IT SHALL PAY.

Satan conjures U PIGGS

U filthy shorting PIGGS keep,your filthy hands OFF the worlds investments


October 27 2011 at 12:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Morris Cantonitis

Mutual Fund managers across the board stating how stocks “do not move” like stocks anymore.
In fact, they are so suspicious; the average investor stays away from them.

October 26 2011 at 7:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply


October 26 2011 at 7:34 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
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