Hinting at… Happiness?



What does a Harvard University professor have to do with flash fiction? Nothing. And everything. Or, at least, something.

I’ve thought for a long time now that good flash fiction packs a punch. It heightens emotional responses, engages readers, invites them to be a part of the story, makes them think…and keeps them thinking.

As I said in a recent guest post at D. Wallace Peach’s blog, “I want to make readers wonder what the hell just happened then decide for themselves three hours later because they can’t stop thinking about it.” Well, I’ve found a bit of scientific proof on why that could be a good thing.

Daniel Gilbert is a professor, psychologist, writer, speaker, award-winner, and all sorts of other cool stuff. He’s done numerous studies on our ability to imagine the future, anticipate outcomes, make decisions, and how all these things affect our happiness. He’s written and talked about it. A lot. You should check him out.

But what I’d like to focus on today is one study he referred to in an interview on NPR: Why We’re Bad At Predicting Our Own Happiness — And How We Can Get Better. Participants watched a movie. Some got to see the end and some did not. (I know, right? Gah!) Here’s part of the transcript:


GILBERT: Well, there’s no doubt that uncertainty can amplify emotions

We did a study in which people watched a movie. And for some of the people in our experiment, we didn’t let them watch how the movie ended. We didn’t let them see what happened to the main character. Now, if I asked you, which of these two movies would you rather see, 100 percent of the hands go up and say, I’d like to see the end of the movie, please.

But what we discovered was people who didn’t see the end of the movie liked it more, thought about it for longer, were still engaged in it and still enjoying it, even hours or days later. They didn’t see what happened to the last – the main character in the end, and so they kept wondering, gosh, I wonder if he went to college or he became a football player. What an interesting thing to be thinking about and enjoying.


Look at that: “people who didn’t see the end of the movie liked it more, thought about it for longer, were still engaged in it and still enjoying it, even hours or days later.”

You see where I’m going with this…

Flash fiction.

I know it’s not exactly the same thing but, wow, it really is similar if you think about it. I mean, you read a flash. And, although it often has a beginning, middle, and end…it hints. You finish the story with some fulfillment but with questions clinging to your brain.

A good flash story will give you enough to sink your teeth into but leave you wondering what happened before, what could happen next, what is going on around the edges of the story.

Readers might enjoy the story better when they use their imagination and creativity. Or not. Just a theory. Either way, they’ll most likely be thinking about it a bit longer, engaging a bit more, and perhaps even be a bit happier as they ponder all the possibilities.


55 thoughts on “Hinting at… Happiness?

  1. Cool study and it makes sense. There’s a certain satisfaction in reading or seeing a story through to the end, but in every case where there are hints at more beyond “the end,” I do engage a lot longer. And you’re right, I enjoy that. I think that “wanting more” is what causes book-hangovers, which most of us love! Fascinating post, Sarah. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I love the thinking behind this. We took the boys to see the Good Dinosaur when it was still in the theaters. Just as the story was building up to the climax my youngest informed me he’d gotten something in his eye which could not wait for the credits. We spent the rest of the movie in the bathroom in an attempt to wash out the mystery particle, so I never did see how the story ended. Considering I’m still thinking about it, there must be some truth to the argument.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Perfect example with the Good Dinosaur movie. Your creativity is kicking in and your imagination is filling in the blanks. I guess just being left without someone showing and telling you everything, your mind takes over. It really is interesting.

      See, now I’ll be thinking about your son and if you got the thing out and, if so, where? Did he have to wait until he got home, poor thing? Or did you get it out at the theatre? How? That would have been difficult. You didn’t tell me. You said you attempted to wash it out. Now I’m wondering and assuming and thinking about all sorts of scenarios.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Someone commented on a recent Flash that it was good in its own right, but what happens next. I responded, “It’s Flash (reader’s name)…you tell me! 😉 ).
    Sounds like my instincts were spot on… 😀

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Interesting. It might be a matter of expectations as well. The formula for happiness is:

    Reality – Expectations = Happiness. If reality exceeds expectations, then there’s positive happiness.

    If I went to a movie, and I wasn’t allowed to watch the end, I’d be pissed off, because I’d expect to see the whole movie. Reality would be less than expectations, which would equal negative happiness. That is, of course, assuming I knew the movie was getting cut short for my viewing.

    Of course, with Flash Fiction, the expectation is that you’re not going to get a sprawling epic, therefore I’d have to say reality would be greater than or equal to expectations, which would therefore result in positive happiness.

    I suppose if the people in the study didn’t know they weren’t being shown the whole movie, I could see them having a positive reaction and retaining the sense of wonder. It’s kind of like how some people were annoyed at J.K. Rowling’s epilogue that showed the future of the Harry Potter characters.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I’d be upset, too, if something was cut off when my expectation was that I’d see the entire thing. But this guy…he’s all about how ‘off’ we are when predicting our own happiness. 😉 I totally see what you’re saying, though. And, yeah, it is kind of like the epilogue. Even when given a concrete THE END, our mind still wonders and wanders about, doesn’t it? We naturally want to continue the story in our mind.

      Hey, where’d you get the happiness formula? Very cool.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Very interesting. Of course I’d want to be in the group that saw the ending, but I admit to thinking over fiction and movies days later that don’t have a definitive end. By the same token, if I get a happy ending that really resonates with me, that tends to linger too 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Pingback: Hinting at… Happiness? by Sarah Brentyn | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  7. Science catches up with art! Art is all about hints, isn’t it? While science might shine the spotlight, and we all 100% claim we “want to know” there exists a richness in the hinting. Another thought is that engagement is about wondering, discussing, considering, sharing. Hints let us consider possibilities. Great post, Sarah!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Cool, isn’t it? I thought this was such an interesting study. Art does hint. It hints. Even when there’s a clear meaning or ending, our minds wonder what’s next. Or what could be next. Or…something. I don’t know. But, completely agree, there IS a richness to hinting. And engagement. Yes! That’s what I’m always going on about. 😀 Engaging readers. Using creativity and imagination to participate in or be a part of the reading experience. Possibilities… Love it!

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Pingback: Guest author feature - Sarah Brentyn - Hinting at Shadows

  9. Sorry I missed this one, Sarah – don’t know how that happened. But maybe I’m not really sorry, as now I got to read all the amazing conversation. It is interesting indeed. I think most books and movies leave me wondering about the next occurrences, even when there is an ending. If I’m not left imagining or wondering, I’m usually thinking what a waste of time and effort it was. Your flash fiction always has me thinking more about its interpretation and wondering how you pack so much punch into a small jar. They’re never a waste of time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never a need to apologize. Ever. Especially since I’m just getting to this after my break. But, really, never a need to apologize. Life is too full of stress to bother. Yes, there is some awesome conversation here, isn’t there? It is so interesting. And I agree with you that, even when given an ending, I’m wondering, “what now?”

      Thank you, Norah. What a lovely thing to say. *hands over small jar full of words* Have fun. 🙂 And Happy New Year!


  10. My feeling about flash fiction is that if you could have at least an hour-long, thought-provoking discussion about it in, say, a college setting or writers’ group and leave with people still disagreeing or wondering … it’s successful.

    And my best friend, when she gets movie recommendations from others, always asks, “Will I like the ending or not?” If the answer is “not,” she follows with, “At what point should I stop watching so that I can make up the ending I want?” And she really does this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is the best comment! I absolutely love this friend and her philosophy. That is awesome. Props to her (and thank you for sharing – you’ve made my day).

      Agreed on the discussion. It’s so true. When you get people disagreeing and/or wondering, it’s successful in my book! 🙂


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