About the Author
Elizabeth Dunn is an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. At age twenty-six, she was featured as one of the “rising stars” across all of academia by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Norton is an associate professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School. His research has twice been featured in The New York Times Magazine Year in Ideas issue. In 2012, he was selected for Wired magazine’s Smart List as one of “50 People Who Will Change the World.”
Make It a Treat
Sarah Silverman loves pot, porn, and fart jokes. But when it comes to indulging in these finer pleasures, the comic and former Saturday Night Live writer has a mantra: “Make it a treat.” This epiphany came to her in the midst of her freshman year at New York University, when a friend found her in the midst of an extended pot bender and imparted some guru-like wisdom: “If you want to enjoy these things—things like weed—you have to make it a treat.”1 On her show, The Sarah Silverman Program, she puts this mantra into action by insisting that her writers temper their innate overreliance on fart jokes.
“Fart jokes make me happier than just about anything in the universe,” she explains. “And for that reason I’m terrified by the idea that someday I might have had enough of them. If they are a genuine treat and a surprise, they are the surest way to send me into tear-soaked convulsions of laughter.” While all of us may not share Sarah Silverman’s humor preferences, her kernel of wisdom—let’s call it Silverman’s Mantra—extends beyond fart jokes. And it can help people make wiser spending decisions. Abundance, it turns out, is the enemy of appreciation.
Many of us are lucky enough to live in a society where chocolate is available in every supermarket, gas station, and movie theater. Ironically, though, this abundance may undermine our enjoyment of it. One afternoon, students came into a psychology lab to complete a simple task: eating a piece of chocolate.2 The following week they returned for a second piece. Overall, the students enjoyed the chocolate less the second time than they had the first. This is the sad reality of the human experience: in general, the more we’re exposed to something, the more its impact diminishes.
It’s not all bad news. Getting used to things can be handy when it comes to cold winters or unpleasant smells. Early one Friday evening, Liz’s Welsh corgi got sprayed by a skunk. In a moment of naïve gallantry, she scooped the stinking dog into her arms, thereby covering herself in the scent, too. After hours of bathing both herself and the dog in tomatoes and other home remedies, Liz found that the scent had faded. She gave the dog a Snausage and headed off to a friend’s party. Moments after Liz’s arrival, the party hostess nervously sniffed the air and exclaimed, “Skunk!” The cure that Liz believed the home remedies had wrought was due to her own olfactory fatigue. After prolonged exposure to the bad smell, Liz became habituated to it, and its pungency faded. Many of us have experienced the process of getting used to bad things. We often fail to realize that a similar kind of habituation can kick in for positive experiences, like buying shiny new toys. From chocolate bars to luxury cars, habituation represents a fundamental barrier to deriving lasting pleasure from our purchases.
Like houses, cars are among the largest purchases that most people make. Is it best to splurge on a BMW, economize with a Ford Escort, or settle for the mid-level option of a Honda Accord? When researchers at the University of Michigan asked students to predict how much pleasure they would experience while driving each type of car, the BMW was the clear winner.3 But do drivers experience more happiness behind the wheel of an expensive car? To find out, the Michigan researchers asked car owners to think back on the last time they had driven their car, rating how much they enjoyed that drive. Although their cars ranged widely in value, from around $400 (a Yugo, perhaps?) to $40,000, there was no relationship at all between the Blue Book value of the car and the amount of enjoyment the owners got from driving it that day.
But here’s the twist in the road: The researchers asked other drivers to list their car’s make, model, and year, and then consider how they typically felt while driving it. When car owners thought about their vehicles in this light, those who owned more expensive cars reported deriving more enjoyment from driving. Suddenly there was a relationship between a car’s value and its emotional payoff. Why? When people are asked how something generally makes them feel, they tend to draw on equally general theories to form an answer. Rather than reconstructing how they felt each of the last fifty times they drove the Bimmer and then averaging these experiences, a BMW owner is likely to think something like, “I own a midnight blue Z4 with three hundred horsepower and a retractable hardtop. Of course I enjoy driving it. Next question.” These undeniably fabulous features are likely to make a big difference for enjoyment during an initial test drive, which is why smart salespeople focus our attention on these features at the time of purchase. Novelty attracts the spotlight of attention, focusing our minds and exciting our emotions. But once we get used to something—even something as nice as a midnight blue Z4—the spotlight moves on. Driving to the grocery store in the dead of winter, we think about being stuck in the left lane behind an octogenarian in an Oldsmobile, about whether the store will have any hot rotisserie chickens left, about almost anything other than the make and model of the car we’re driving. Retractable hardtops just aren’t that relevant in subzero temperatures. And this explains why driving a more expensive car doesn’t usually provide more joy than driving an economy model.
Unless, that is, we make driving a treat. In a final study, the Michigan researchers asked car owners to think about the last time they had driven their car just for fun. When people thought back on their most recent joy ride, individuals with more expensive cars reported more pleasure from driving. But these joy rides were remarkably rare. So, driving a BMW probably won’t provide you with any more pleasure than driving a Ford Escort—except on those rare occasions when your attention turns to the car itself, whether directed by a question from a researcher or a joy ride on a winding mountain road.
The Deceptive Simplicity of Silverman’s Mantra
According to Oprah Winfrey, “The single greatest thing you can do to change your life today would be to start being grateful for what you have.”4 This is good advice. But, like a grapefruit diet, adopting an attitude of gratitude is easy at first but quickly becomes almost impossible. Because novelty captures our attention, we feel buoyantly grateful for things that catch us by surprise.5 The sixteen-year-old who lives out the teenage fantasy of discovering a new car wrapped in a giant red bow on his birthday will no doubt experience a surge of joy and gratitude. But these feelings are likely to fade as being a car owner becomes just another part of his daily experience and identity.
Following Oprah’s advice is hard for all of us, and ironically, it gets even harder as people edge closer and closer to Oprah’s end of the wealth spectrum. In a study of working adults in Belgium, wealthier individuals reported a lower proclivity to savor life’s little pleasures. They were less likely to say that they would pause to appreciate a beautiful waterfall on a hike, or stay present in the moment during a romantic weekend getaway.6 This phenomenon helps explain why the relationship between income and happiness is weaker than many people expect. At the same time that money increases our happiness by giving us access to all kinds of wonderful things, knowing we have access to wonderful things undermines our happiness by reducing our tendency to appreciate life’s small joys.
Just thinking about money can produce some of the same detrimental effects as having a lot of it. If you ever want those around you to act like wealthy people for a few minutes, research suggests that all you have to do is show them a photograph of a big stack of money.7 Seeing this photograph makes people less inclined to linger by a waterfall or savor life’s other little pleasures, just like individuals who actually have a lot of money.8
The idea that wealth interferes with the proclivity to savor echoes the theme of the classic 1964 children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The young hero, Charlie Bucket, lives in a tiny two-room house with one bed and four grandparents. While the wealthier kids in the story gorge themselves on a plentiful supply of chocolate bars, Charlie’s family saves up just enough money to give him one chocolate bar a year, on his birthday. Each time, he would “treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold,” spending days just looking at it before he would finally “peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble, just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on,” making his annual bar of chocolate last over a month.9
In a Willy Wonkaesque study, Canadian students saw a photograph of money and then ate a piece of chocolate, as researchers surreptitiously observed them.10 Compared to others who hadn’t seen the money, students who saw this photograph spent substantially less time eating their chocolate, chowing it down like Augustus Gloop. The observers also noted less enjoyment on their faces. Because even a simple reminder of wealth undermines our ability to enjoy life’s little treats, living by Silverman’s Mantra may not be easy, at least for those of us who are wealthier than Charlie Bucket. According to Silverman: “That’s why mantras need to be repeated—they’re fucking hard to remember.”11
Most people recognize that they won’t appreciate their car quite as much after owning it for twenty-four months as they did when they first drove it home, just as the twenty-fourth fart joke won’t be as funny as the first one. When researchers at Yale asked people to predict how their enjoyment of various products might change over time, the majority expected their enjoyment would decline, for products ranging from a plasma TV to a kaleidoscope.12 The problem is that it’s easy to lose sight of this knowledge when a shiny new toy is right at your fingertips. In another study, the Yale researchers gave students a kaleidoscope and asked half of them to predict how much they would enjoy playing with it a week later. Others predicted how much they would enjoy it a day later.13 Students expected to enjoy the kaleidoscope just as much regardless of the time frame they considered, even though most of their peers in the previous study believed that enjoyment of a kaleidoscope would decline with time. In other words, though we understand that enjoyment often fades over time, we don’t always apply that knowledge when contemplating a new toy. When researchers prompt people to consider the passage of time, this reminder triggers the correct belief that the tide of enjoyment quickly recedes. In the absence of such reminders, however, people envision an unchanging sea of pleasure. As a result, products often provide less lasting enjoyment than people expect. Indeed, after students took their kaleidoscopes home, they reported enjoying the toys much less if they were contacted a week later rather than a day later.
This drop in enjoyment occurs because people are fundamentally different from thermometers. Put a thermometer in lukewarm water, and the mercury rises to reflect the water’s precise temperature. “It does not matter whether the mercury was previously stored in an oven or an ice bath, or whether it was stored in either place for hours or days or years,” researchers Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein explain. “Mercury has no memory for previous states. Humans and other organisms do not behave this way.”14 Stick your hand in lukewarm water and it may feel piping hot if you’ve just come inside on a frigid winter morning, but cool and refreshing on a sweaty summer afternoon. Leave your hand in the water and the intensity of the initial sensation will soon subside. Our emotional system works in much the same way, making us highly sensitive to change. Understanding this fundamental difference between the thermometer and what we might call the “cheerometer” enables us to develop specific spending strategies designed to combat ennui.
The Wisdom of Candy Corn
Because we lack mercury’s amnesia, our enjoyment of a piece of chocolate typically declines from one week to the next. But there’s a way to maximize the pleasure of that second confection. Temporarily giving up chocolate can restore our ability to enjoy it. After an initial chocolate tasting, students promised to abstain from chocolate for one week.15 Another group of students pledged to eat as much chocolate as they comfortably could, and they received a two-pound bag of chocolate to help them fulfill their pledge. The students who left with this reservoir of chocolatey goodness may seem like the lucky ones. But their sweet windfall came at a price. When they returned the following week to sample additional chocolate, they enjoyed it much less than they had the week before. People only enjoyed chocolate as much the second week as they had the first if they had given it up in between.I
If abundance is the enemy of appreciation, scarcity may be our best ally. As it turns out, all of Mike’s favorite treats are widely available for just a brief period each year: Red Hots (easiest to find in February), candy corn (October), plus peppermint stick ice cream and eggnog (December). Because he takes long breaks from these treats during the summer months, he’s happy all over again when October rolls around and the candy corn starts flowing.
Giving up Red Hots and candy corn can provide an escape hatch from adaptation, helping turn our favorite things back into treats. But we are not advocating austerity, though the simple life does have its adherents. In the name of voluntary simplicity, people on the “Great American Apparel Diet” have given up buying clothes for a year.16 Other individuals have stripped their monthly wardrobes down to just six items.17 As coworkers in nearby cubicles might attest, it is possible to take this strategy too far. Although a quick Google search reveals no end of claims about the benefits of voluntary simplicity, there is little rigorous evidence that emptying your life of worldly possessions results in a Zen-like state of pure bliss.
When Kristen Martini was in her mid-thirties, she moved from a large suburban home to a tiny cottage in the woods, taking only some food, a bit of clothing, and her two children, and leaving behind the enviable trappings of her comfortable life.18 The values and goals that prompted this move—placing personal growth and fulfillment above image and financial success—are indeed strongly linked to happiness. People who describe themselves as voluntary simplifiers do report greater happiness.19 But their happiness appears to stem more from the values and mind-sets associated with voluntary simplicity than from major lifestyle changes. In other words, profound self-denial may be overrated.
Instead, we stress the importance of treats. Liz used to have a latte every day. At first the latte was a treat, especially in graduate school, when it represented a substantial portion of her daily budget. But while rushing to work one day, chugging her latte to ingest a sufficient amount of caffeine before a meeting, she realized that the latte was no longer a treat. She switched her daily drink to the regular brewed coffee that everyone drank before the age of espresso, cutting her coffee budget dramatically. Every so often, though, she decides, “Today is a latte day.” She heads to a cof...
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