The Psychology of Happiness and Feedback

The Psychology of Happiness and Feedback

Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” (

Don’t miss new Big Think videos!  Subscribe by clicking here:

Transcript – If you look at the neuroscience, the way that we’re wired has a profound effect on how we hear and respond to feedback. Now, we took a look at three variables that are particularly important in terms of your reaction to feedback. The first is your baseline. In the literature this is called set point. It’s sort of a how happy or unhappy are you in the absence of other events in your life. Where’s that level that you come back to?

If it’s a scale of one to ten, some people just live their lives at nine. They’re just so unbelievably happy and cheerful about everything, you know from like a cup of coffee to a promotion they’re just thrilled. This research comes from looking at lottery winners. A year later they’re about as happy or unhappy as they were before they won the lottery. And people who go to jail, a year later they’re about as happy or unhappy as before they went to jail. Now, the reason this matters for feedback, particularly if you have a low set point or baseline, positive feedback can be muffled for you. The volume is turned down; it’s harder for you to hear it.

Now, we look at the second variable, which is swing. When you get positive or negative feedback how far off your baseline does it knock you? The same piece of feedback can be devastating for one person and, you know, kind of annoying for another. And then the third variable is how long does it take you to come back to your baseline. How long do you sustain positive feeling or how long does it take you to recover from negative feeling. So taken together that’s where the big variation in sensitivity comes from – that some people are extremely sensitive and other people are pretty insensitive, or maybe I should say even keel. But I suppose if you’re insensitive you don’t really care what I call you so it doesn’t matter.

Here’s why this is particularly important. There are two reasons. One is your own footprint or feedback profile, not only influences how you receive feedback, it also influences how you give feedback. So if you’re pretty even keel it could be that you’re more likely to be pretty direct or other people would describe you as harsh in your feedback because you think like this isn’t that big of deal; you’re overreacting to it. Other people who are very sensitive are likely to tiptoe around issues. And if they’re talking to someone who’s pretty even keel like they’re not even understanding that you’re giving them feedback. Like you have to be pretty direct to even get through to them.

The second reason it matters is that particularly if you swing negative it can actually distort your sense of the feedback itself and your sense of yourself. So in terms of distorting your sense of the feedback itself, it’s almost like it super sizes it. You know, one piece of feedback triggers sort of an overwhelming flood where the feedback itself overruns its borders. It’s not one thing it’s everything. It’s not now it’s forever. And you could fall into what we called the Google Bias. It’s as if mentally and emotionally you Google everything that’s wrong with me and you get like 1.2 million hits. All your past mistakes, failed relationships, bad judgment, you know, there are sponsored ads from your father and your ex and it’s suddenly everything you can see about yourself. The challenge in the book is how do you dismantle the distortions so that you can see that’s feedback itself at actual size and it doesn’t become so big and overwhelming that you’re actually not in a place to learn and you’re not hearing the feedback for what it does represent and what it doesn’t present.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


April 16, 2014 / 50 Comments / by / in
  • Thank you for posting this. I'm a person with PTSD from years of abuse from my mother, from the harshness of my piers growing up and the abuse from my now exhusband. My baseline for happiness would have to be 4 to 5. I can be very sensitive when I've lost confidence in myself. Most times I'm 'even kell" (sp?) and I'm direct cause my family in the past were so in the negative way. I'm direct towards my coworkers and friends because I'm not afraid to talk. I had always been told to stay quiet. Now that I'm grown, I don't like staying quiet. My directness isn't harsh, it is procieved as such by others cause I've noticed they don't know how to talk to others, too. However, with all this in mind, I have 'echos' of my past that keep popping up in my mind of all the bad things I've gone through. The 'echo' is so bad that I loose confidence easily and get depressed easily. Thankfully I work on art and writing to get it out, but at times it's not enough. I would like it very much if this video conversation would continue in 'How to counter and clean up negative thoughts/feedback'. How to calm the PTSD in my mind and others like me. This video helped open me up a bit inside, so now I feel a bit stronger. Knowing thy self is a powerful thing. It helps me and others move on to be the best person any of us can be so we can live our lives to the fullest. PTSD can be treated, but it takes each of us to face ourselves to find that happiness we lost.

  • i am very impressed

  • Sponsor ads from your father and your ex 😀

  • LMAO @ Google analogy.  
    This stuff is actually really amazing and potent information.

  • She lost me at folks achieving the same base line contentment whether in prison or after winning the lottery. That simply is not accurate.

  • Interesting. So there is a natural medium which is not influenced by monetary factors. Just like the economy I suppose. In the long run, only REAL factors can affect REAL variables.

  • Something really sexy about this woman.

  • That is a REALLY good Vid!!! Very insightful and well put in perspective. I think understanding yourself is soo crucial in order to figure out how to deal with things and life in general.

  • To those who say that money doesn't bring happiness- Then send me all your money.

  • I Googled "Everything that's wrong with me"
    There are books about it….I am going to go cry in a corner now…

  • Nice info about our happiness mechanism tnx uploader and creator

  • Nice info about our happiness mechanism tnx uploader and creator

  • I'm willing to bet winning the lottery would raise my baseline…but only after I win: I have no $ to bet now.

  • Omg…I have that.

  • A truly representative sample group? Increased happiness is consistent when true financial wealth is introduced into the average income family for example. When financial struggle is alleviated happiness is increased. Common sense. To many assume that apparent "expert" opinion is always accurate. Our world of sheep.

  • The problem is that people can dish it out but they can't take it in return because they think of themselves as infallible so you have Professors and teachers thinking that objects made them, without being directed and you have astrophysicists thinking that time in the universe is measurable when all of time is an expansion of time from no time. You have a bunch of loonies running the asylum!

  • Guys you should seriously think about receiving salvation from hell!
    People all across the earth are sinners, and the penalty for sin is hell, but Jesus Christ will save those people who trust in him alone.
    Jesus is the perfect son of God, (Totally God and Man) who died on the cross for our sins, (the terrible things we do) was taken into a tomb, and rose again on the 3rd day.
    If you choose to have faith in him alone, he will give you eternal life and forgiveness of sins as a token of his love.

  • High rising tone?

  • Happiness doesn't exist, at least for the majority of people, and if it does it's fleeting.

  • doesn't metter for me 🙂 🙁

  • this is such bizarre timing for me because i'm so hung up on some negative feedback and realize that i need to just take it in and move on – thanks

  • Sheila knows what she's talking about

  • She is totally hot, she does make sense though, but true happiness comes from within, just as beauty does.


  • From my point of view this seems like a description of a problem. No solution was offered. 
    I believe Big Think should be about solutions.

  • Just enough, not to little , not to much, that helps with happiness too.
    It would make my day if you viewed my channel called Tess Closet,for free style advice for men and women

  • A quick definition of what exactly she means by 'feedback' would have enhanced this video.

  • What you say is great but what is the actual mechanism that causes this at the neuronal level? It is my hypothesis that how the neurons are connected isn't the only factor in how information is processed in the brain. There are neuronal sheaths that are folded throughout the brain. While this maximizes surface area it may also play another pivotal role in neural processes. Neurons that are not connected but are at a sufficient distance from each other may be activated by a residual electromagnetic wave produced from the ion channels opening and closing. In this manner the morphology and topology of the brain play a role.

  • I know from past experience most people won't even give feedback. Not out of empathy but rather a desire to avoid any possible drama. I'm greatful normally when I actually receive it, but yeah it's a difficult thing to do so most people don't imo

  • I found this very insightful and very helpful.  Thank You for making it and posting it!

  • The last minute sounded a lot like me, but what do I do? Maybe I just have to accept that I'm an unhappy person. Besides, what have I done to deserve happiness?

  • Ok money does bring happiness to a degree, after that set point is reached money doesnt really matter. That number is around $75 000 a year but that can vary from person to person.

  • What a lovely and well articulated distillation and presentation.

  • Nice metaphor using googling.

  • Cool

  • its not about being happy or sad

  • She has a clicking in her mouth when she talks

  • I hope they don't start psycho analyzing your Facebook that would suck is also the reason why in the future you better be a kind little nice little person because of you don't no jobs there anything is going to ever want you and your life is going to suck

  • I totally understand this

  • It's a PI controller haha, you are missing your derivative control (damping) so I suppose it would be to what extent we resist changes in mood.

  • Just lift and be happy!! That's why we started or channel, feel free to check out our workout videos and fitness tips

  • I was about to take this video seriously but then I noticed this channel follows psychology. And as I avoid trolls I'm not taking any notice of this video. Why am I telling you this? Don't know. Insurfient information from my side.

  • shutup and be happy

  • That AkaiProvideo Ad though..

  • Sometimes I think I'm insensitive, but other times I think I'm sensitive…

  • The subtle swoosh sound at 2:54 after she says, "Google bias" is a nice touch. It triggers your brain to feel like the subject requires your full attention. Did you notice? #ProducerMindsNeverStop

  • awesome video

  • I'm struggling to see how this approach maintains subjectivity in the feedback and what it does or doesn't represent. This video seems to imply that it's objective and can be taken to mean only one thing, without recognizing that one thing is nothing more than the opinion of whomever is giving the criticism. (And if anyone can explain how feedback is not a critique, please illuminate me. )

  • It is human instinct to love. Humans know love.

  • Question at 3:16: how do u dismantle the distortion so u can see the feedback in its actual size?
    Answer: psychedelics

%d bloggers like this: