How can I be happy again? Will I ever experience the un-describable joy of my first travel, first bite of chocolate, or even first love?

Laura had just returned from the sumptuous meal offered at the company sponsored seminar. Why did company sponsored meetings have such lavish meals?  She wondered if it was a conspiracy, where they get people to eat so much that they doze off for the second half of the meeting and are too dazed to comprehend the bad news being delivered.  This meal was no different, she could not remember the last time she had enjoyed such delicious brownies.  She made her way back to the seminar quickly and found Jay about to start the post-lunch session.

 

“How was lunch, people?” Jay asked.  “Ate too much” Julia spoke for them all.  “I thought everything was very delicious.  Anyone fancied something specifically?”  Jay asked.   Laura was beginning to feel comfortable at this seminar and so promptly spoke up, “Yes, the brownies were amazing!”  Jay was surprised to hear her since she had been quiet so far, “Yes, they were, Laura.  They truly were.  Tell me, based on your past experience, do you think you would have enjoyed them as much had you had a second and a third one?”  Laura thought for a moment and remembered the times when as a teenager she used to eat 3 or 4 cookies at a time and felt sick after the second one.  “May be, but not as much.  The one that I had, hit the spot”. She responded.  “Very well put Laura! Not as much, and that is the key.  The first hits the spot and the next—not as much”.

 

Jay continued, “This holds true for everything we consume.  Most of you have been in business and management long enough to understand the concept of marginal utility: Utility is the satisfaction derived from consuming a given amount of good or service.  It is generally accepted that the more the person consumes the larger is his total utility.  However, the marginal utility is the additional utility from the next unit of good/ utility consumed.  Though total utility does increase with consuming additional unit of good/ service, the marginal utility decreases.  In simple words, the second brownie may not give as much pleasure as the first one and the third may bring even less satisfaction than the second one and so on”

 

“I am reminded of a study by Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn. People were invited to their laboratory to eat chocolates.  Wonderful laboratory, isn’t it? These investigators were basically grading people’s level of happiness. So what did they do? They sent half of these chocolate-eaters home with a bag of chocolate, encouraging them to eat as much as they can over the next week.  And the other half, they send home with nothing. A week later all chocolate lovers returned to the lab and were given a piece of chocolate.  The ones who had been eating chocolates all week, enjoyed the lab chocolate less the second time than the first.  Based on this and other similar studies, the researchers claimed that continuous consumption of something reduces our ability to enjoy it.”

 

Laura realized that she had made a smart move by resisting the temptation to have a second brownie during lunch.  It perhaps would not have been as pleasurable as the first one.

 

“Not just food, this holds true in many aspects of life.  For instance, travel!   People who are well traveled seem to derive less pleasure from traveling to the next place.  I want you to remember your first airplane travel, you probably still remember it and likely with fondness.  The 27th flight from New York to Chicago, not so much” Jay smiled. The executives in the room nodded vigorously.

 

Jay continued: “In an interesting study among US residents, researchers recorded how many countries the study participants had traveled and then asked them to imagine winning a trip to common American vacation spots as well as  trip to “dream vacation” to Italy, Australia and Ireland.  People who were extensively traveled did not muster much enthusiasm for US destination but had some enthusiasm for dream vacations.  Infrequent travelers had great enthusiasm for all these vacations; approaching all and any type of vacation with an enviable gusto.  So this is good news for people who travel less but how about the well traveled among you? What I am telling you  is that consuming more of anything will leave traces in your mind and make the next one less enjoyable.

 

Laura had a question: “This sounds so sad. Having more of something seems to make us cynical and weary?” Julia chimed in: “You read my mind Laura. If every experience of something makes me cynical, then how can I enjoy my life? So many things repeat in life? How do I deal with them?”

 

Jay replied: “What you are essentially asking is: Can I become ‘travel-naïve’ again? Can I take a flight the next time and feel like it is my first? Can I become ‘chocolate-naïve’ enjoy a piece of chocolate again as if I was having it for the first time? Can I even feel love the way I felt it the first time? What do you think?”

 

The room was silent.

i
Jay continued: “Yes, we can. But…

 

The entire room chorused: “But, what?”

 

Jay said: “But you have to make a sacrifice.  Remember the study about chocolate-lovers, I mentioned.  I did not tell you about the other half who did not get chocolate to take home.  This “unfortunate” group was not only sent home without chocolates but with instructions not to eat any chocolate for the whole week.  When they returned to the lab next week and were served chocolates, they claimed to have enjoyed it as much as the first week”.

 

Laura thoughts immediately turned to the eggnog latte at Starbucks that she enjoyed immensely during Christmas time.  She had always thought that it was the spirit of Christmas that made the eggnog so enjoyable. However, now she wondered: Could it be because Starbucks does not serve it all year long and makes her take an “eggnog latte break”?

 

Jay continued, “In another study, investigators found that after living in London for a whole year, residents typically report that they’ve visited fewer landmarks—from Big Ben to Kensington Palace—than visitors who have only been there for two weeks.  But this is not because Londoners do not enjoy travel.  Most Londoners had visited more landmarks in other cities.  Interestingly enough, when they themselves are about to move away, or when out-of-town guests come to visit, they rush up to enjoy the city. It appears that when people start sensing that a source of potential pleasure is not going to last too long, do they start relishing these.  It appears that introducing a limited-time window may encourage people to seize the pleasurable opportunities.”

  big ben

 

“In yet another research project, investigators interviewed visitors to the famous Old North Church in Boston.  Visitors had traveled far and wide to visit this church.  The investigators asked the visitors to mark off those places that they had traveled to from a list they provided.  One list contained sites which a “routine” traveler was likely to have seen (Disneyland etc) and another contained list that was too exotic for a routine US traveler (Tokyo, etc.).  After marking the check list the visitors toured the church and on their return provided the investigator with input regarding how much they enjoyed the church.  Interestingly, those who had marked less number of sites from the check list (regardless of the check list provided) enjoyed the visit more.  Based on this study, the investigators concluded that even temporary feeling of being poorly traveled increases the pleasure one derives from traveling. Even a transient feeling of poverty or paucity seems to enhance the pleasure”.

 

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Julia asked: “But in today’s world our entire life revolves around consumption and consuming more and more. Consuming continuously and endlessly is sold as the key to endless happiness. Buy the new model of the car, the new summer dress, it will all make you happy? But what you are saying is that consuming more will make me weary and decrease my happiness?

 

Laura piped in: “I think Julia and I are thinking along similar lines. In fact I would stretch Julia’s argument further. The entire purpose behind working so hard is to make money so as to enjoy life’s pleasures? Both my husband and I work, leaving our kids behind in schools and day-care centers so we can actually buy happiness with the extra money we earn?

 

Jay responded: “Indeed, money happens to be a repository of all such possessions and experiences and the so-called gateway to happiness in our minds. All of us have thought at some time: Only if I had more money, I would enjoy my life so much more. However, studies by the team led by a researcher Gilbert have shown that savoring life’s pleasure is impeded by wealth.  In a study among Belgian University employees, wealthier individuals reported decreased savoring compared to those “less fortunate”. Even the thought of money makes it difficult for people to enjoy life small pleasures.  Subjects shown photographs of money spend less time eating their chocolate and derived less pleasure from it compared to those who saw a neutral photograph.  I hope you see the parallel between the lack of pleasure from the second brownie when they are here for the taking, from the chocolate when eaten daily, lack of gusto for travel a church when you have been around the world and the lack of pleasure when one has plenty of wealth to make all of these available as needed.”

 

Julia and Laura were completely engaged in this discussion. Both raised their hands together to ask a question. Laura gestured to Julia to go first. Julia asked: “So, does this mean the wealthy are doomed to unhappiness?”

 

Laura asked: “The research you have mentioned so far shows that being chocolate-naïve makes chocolate more enjoyable, or being travel-naïve makes travel more enjoyable and so on. How do I become naïve again, now that I have experienced these things and done so repeatedly and often continuously?

 

Jay said: “As we speak, researchers are working hard to figure out ways to overcome this dilemma. They call this the problem of Hedonic-Adaptation’.

 

Two researchers – Lyubomirsky and Sheldon – have proposed a hedonic adaptation prevention model which tries to curtail this. They propose that any change leads to increased positive emotion.  But constant stimulus resulting from similar change becomes predictable and one loses the positive emotion associated with it.  For example, continuous consumption of chocolates or brownies, constant travels etc.  Hence, to prevent such adaptation, they propose that variety of stimulus that evoked positive emotions are preferable since they do not lead to the same predictable change and hence do not lead to hedonic adaptation.  So a change in life situation which leads to other dynamic changes may lead to greater happiness compared to a single change happening continuously.

 

Laura piped in this time surprised at her own boldness: “So what you mean is instead of eating brownies every day, throw in different things that create the same sense of enjoyment?”

 

Jay responded: “Yes. They further suggest that a surprise factor can keep things exciting and fresh.  Surprises keep happiness levels high.  It is well known that random positive events lead to greater happiness than predictable positive events. So let yourself be surprised. There are companies such as Birch Box, which sends you a packet of new cosmetic products every month, the contents of the package is unknown and people seem to enjoy the surprise factor.  The ones who let their curiosity run wild and find out beforehand what the Birchbox of the month contain derive less pleasure from it when they receive it.  One can let oneself be surprised occasionally by exploring more than planning.  I knew someone who had planned his vacation in Peru to the details of where he was going to have every meal and coffee break!  I would rather explore and accidentally fall upon a nice place on and off, rather than be a constant follower of trip-advisor.  It is the little surprises that constitute great memories and will help even the most well traveled person keep up the pleasure of traveling.  Don’t plan to the last detail”

 

Brook said: “Gifts. What I have taken from this research is that receiving and giving gifts can help keep or levels of happiness high.”

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Jay continued: “Another way of decreasing this hedonic adaptation that kills our joys is to appreciate what one has with all its nuances.  Constant recognition that what you have is worth celebrating will lead to decreased adaptation to it.  One has to recognize the different nuances of every life situation and learn to appreciate all aspects of it.  For example, One’s job involves: the people (the colleagues, the peers, the seniors), the space (city, location vis-a-vis other conveniences, one’s desk or office etc.), the organization (its mission, culture, place in market, place in society etc).  Parse these details and learn to appreciate all aspects of it.   One can parse such details for every aspect of one’s life and be appreciative of the nuances of one’s situation.   People who appreciate more, complain less and thereby boost their own happiness levels”.

 

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How to use these principles to buy happiness

So, in a way, I am digressing from the key element of buying happiness but let me go around the room and see if the information I provided can be applied to your buying decisions with some concrete examples.  Let’s start small:  How would you go about making choices on restaurants for your family’s Friday evening eat-out routine?  Steve, would you like to take a shot at it?” Jay asked.

 

Steve was the Vice President of operations, who did not miss an opportunity to let his subordinates know that he was way up the ladder.  Laura knew what he was going to say, RC Steakhouse or something like that to let everyone know that he could afford what some of the rest couldn’t.  Steve seemed to be pensive and then spoke, “If you had asked me before this session, I might have had a different answer but you are beginning to speak to me and provide me with some answers to some of my musings.  So, now I am thinking, I will plan on changing up restaurants every Friday evening.  Let’s see….” He paused to mull over it and then continued, “In our family, we will take turn each Friday on picking the restaurant.  This will eliminate the routine of the same restaurant, same food etc. but also introduce the element of surprise for the rest in the family.  Further, when we return to my favorite restaurant, I will enjoy the food better since I would have been “steak-naïve” for a while.  Further, I recognize why I have stopped savoring the food as much.  The place smells of money, everything about the place sends a message about money, I think I will go to other restaurants, where I will savor the taste more since there will not be the conspicuous demonstration of money.  I guess I will visit some hole-in-the-wall places in my jeans and t- shirt and not worry about the detailed review of each item on urbanspoon.com.  This will leave room for a pleasant surprise when I find a great dish in a little known joint”  he concluded.

 

“Wow! That is impressive.  I could not have applied the studies to this situation any better.  Have you been thinking about this Steve?” Jay asked.  “Yes, off late, I had been wondering why I don’t enjoy the steakhouse I frequent.  So when we started talking about brownies, I started applying the information to the steak I have out there”.  Jay nodded, “Lucky me, that I picked you to answer that one.  Ok, next purchase, a little bigger: vacation.  Anyone planning a vacation and want to apply the information I provided to choosing your vacation?”

 

Laura had gotten over her demureness and since she had been thinking about vacations off late, thought it may be worth bouncing her ideas off of Jay.  “Yes, I have been thinking about a vacation” She spoke up, “I wanted to go on vacation but am not able to afford anything exotic.   Further, I do not have much vacation time, so I will have an extended weekend only.  I was unhappy about not being able to go anywhere but after the information you have provided, I am thinking of going back to my family cabin.  I will bring my 9-year old niece along with.  I have not spent enough time with her but this will be my opportunity. I will not go for the same hike, the same boat ride.  It will different since I will do different activities with her, reminiscing over my childhood in that cabin.  I will get to relive those memories.  I will take her for a walk in the town close by and explore new stores, explore ice-cream offerings with my niece.  Instead of the family routines, I will try these new experiences and let them surprise me. It will be my time to appreciate this family property, the memories it holds, the experiences it brings and connections it has made and continues to make through the years.  This vacation will bring my niece and I closer”.  Jay responded, “Well, I thought post-lunch sessions are supposed to put you to sleep but everyone seems to be wide awake and actively processing the information.  Excellent job, Laura!  Same vacation cabin, different experience and rediscovering it and savoring various aspects of it! Well done, I have nothing more to add.  Now, for an even bigger purchase: a house.  Any takers?”

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The company “higher ups” immediately turned to Phillip, the chief technology officer.  He had been talking about buying a house for a while and had discussed the same with some of them at water cooler, others after meeting and some over after-work drink gatherings. Phillip noted the various eyes on him and felt that he had no option but to speak up.  “Well, I guess I have thought about this the most in recent times, so let me see if I can use the information you have provided to bring about some consideration in buying my next house.  My wife and I have 2 kids and our parents live out of town.  We have a large group of friends and have always wanted to invite these friends and colleagues but our house is too small.  Based on your information, the house should not be one change but should allow multiple, small, dynamic changes which will continue to make us happy for a while.  I think I will buy a house which will be big enough for grandparents to stay without having to worry about crowding our space.  I will get a house with a backyard large enough to have occasional barbeque party for my friends and for the kids to play freely.  I will probably get something close to the hiking trail, so that as a family we take small hikes routinely.  This will certainly bring us closer.  I should probably convince my wife not to get a kitchen as elaborate as her sister’s since the comparison will get old very quickly and an elaborate kitchen will not serve much function since neither of us enjoys cooking.  I will give up the idea of home theatre also, since I can use that money to get the house I need to enable these experiences”.

 

Jay was gleaming with pride, “Phillip, well done!  It seems that our discussion has helped clear your mind about what would be important considerations and what you can give up, while buying a house.  So, now, all of you can see how we can use the understanding of hedonic adaptation and ways to prevent it to make routine purchases as well as major life decision.  I hope you continue to take today’s information into consideration in your day to day life decision.  We will end there for today and come back tomorrow to understand some other ways to buy happiness!” Jay started putting his papers inside his briefcase, looked up at the class and said: “Excellent! I had such a wonderful time here. I am fortunate to be working with a team of quick learners.”

 

“Aaah, I know what you are doing. You are using appreciation to increase and maintain your own sense of happiness about conducting this session,” laughed Julia.

 

“Not at all. You guys are indeed smart people. I am simply stating the obvious. I am happy!” Jay winked.

 

 

© Jignesh Shah, 2014

 

 

References:

  • Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E.W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science,21, 759‐763
  •  Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E.W Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation.  Social Psychological and Personality Science September 2013 vol. 4 no. 5 563-568
  • Kurtz, J. L. (2008). Looking to the future to appreciate the present: The benefits of perceived temporal scarcity. Psychological Science19(12), 1238-1241.
  • Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. L. (2012). The challenge of staying happier: Testing the hedonic adaptation prevention model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35(5), 670-680.
  • Nelson, S. K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Finding happiness: Tailoring positive activities
  • for optimal well-being benefits. Handbook of positive emotions. New York: Guilford.

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