C&B Notes

Experiences > Things (At Least for Happiness)

A new book by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton argues that the path to increased happiness/satisfaction, at least for most of us, is to spend money not on physical things but rather on experiences.  They submit that joy is not just derived from the experience itself, but that the anticipation of the experience brings us joy well in advance.

Experiences can have a much bigger impact on people’s happiness than things, and a big part of that happiness lies in looking forward to the experience that you are going to have.  This is one of the central arguments made by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, who have studied happiness for many years.  Their book is filled with surprising, counterintuitive findings that also produce a spark of recognition.  Don’t we all know that anticipating a wonderful experience can be as good as the experience itself, and maybe even better?…

Dunn and Norton offer five general principles.  Of these, the preference for experiences over commodities may be the most important.  Strikingly, people who move to new homes do not show even small increases in overall happiness.  Harvard students care a lot about getting into the most beautiful and well-located of Harvard’s houses, but the evidence suggests that the students’ happiness is utterly unaffected by where they end up.  By contrast, trips, movies, and sporting events can have a real impact on people’s subjective experience.

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People often get a lot of pleasure from anticipating the future.  The French even have a term for this phenomenon: se réjouir.   I have noted that people tend to be especially happy in the period before vacations, but the phenomenon is far more general.  Many people think that Sunday is the happiest day of the week (because it is a day off from work), but there is good evidence that Friday is actually happier.  On Sunday people are thinking about Monday, but on Friday they are thinking about the weekend.  One reason for the immense appeal of the future is its ambiguity.  With respect to both goods and services, people tend “to fill in the details as we would like them to be.”  A coming trip, vacation, book, film, or romance may be especially appealing for that reason.  Similarly, newly elected politicians are popular because people can “envision a rosy future absent the buzzkill of reality.”  Uncertainty allows people to see the future in the most optimistic light, and it also keeps people’s attention focused on it, which increases its allure.  For this reason, it makes special sense for people to delay consumption when anticipation itself is fun or exciting, and when the delay gives them a chance to look for “enticing details that will promote positive expectations about the consumption experience.”  Some people seem to know this, at least with respect to some activities.

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Most of Dunn’s and Norton’s disparate claims are unified by two phenomena: attention and adaptation.  Our affective states are greatly influenced by what we attend to, and we attend to what is new, not what is familiar (hence the idea of “re-virginizing”).  Moreover, human beings have remarkable power to adapt both to bad and to good.  After a year, lottery winners are not much happier than they were before they won the lottery, and paraplegics do not appear to be a lot less happy than they were before they lost the use of their legs.  Many of the authors’ findings reflect a simple claim, which is that people should be spending money on items that will continue to claim their attention, and on goods and services to which they will not quickly adapt.