Part 1 - Rethink "Awesome Stuff"
So going on vacation, or spending some time in an awesome art gallery, or going to Europe to check out the wonderful paintings there, or going to a concert. To test this, Leaf Van Boven and colleagues actually did this study where they had friends rate hearing about other people's experiential or material purchases. And we know this from a cool study by Howell and Hill, who actually did the normal things, talk about an experience or a material purchase you just made, and do all these ratings for it about your happiness.
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All right. Well, welcome back everybody to our third lecture on the Psychology of Well-Being. I hope you’ve all been thinking about the insights that you’ve learned throughout the past week and all your biases, and you’re going to be able to use them. This week, we’re going to have some actual concrete intentional strategies that you guys can use. And so we’re going to have lots of homework this week, so be prepared. But just to go through, again, just a reminder of where we were. First lecture, we went through all these misconceptions about happiness, these things that we think make us happy, but which don’t. Last week, we talked about why our expectations are so bad. We did a little bit of a swap on the third one here. Because today, what I realize is that part of the stuff that’s going to make us happy is actually finding ways to overcome our biases. And so this is going to be the first week we’re getting concrete strategies of actually making yourself happy. But the real shocking stuff that makes you happy is going to come next week. I keep switching around but – it’ll keep you on your toes. Back to our review. We started in the beginning with all the stuff that we think of as our goals that make us happy and we said most of these don’t make us as happy as we think. We started this new term of miswanting. This idea that we’re wanting the wrong stuff, that we are miswanting stuff that we don’t necessarily think is going to make us happier, that doesn’t make us as happy as we think and we’re not wanting all the good stuff. And so, we asked last time, why does this miswanting occur? Why are our minds so messed up? We said, “indeed our minds are messed up. There are all these annoying features that seem to be leading us astray”. We went through a couple of these different ones. We said, “our minds have these intuitions that are often really, really wrong, we have to fight against that”. We saw that our minds are not thinking in terms of absolutes, they’re judging relative to these reference points and that messes us up a lot, because we’re often comparing against reference points that aren’t good. We also learned that our mind has this really terrible tendency to get used to stuff. And in fact, there’s this corollary that we don’t even realize that our minds do this, but it does this all the time. That means that the stuff that starts out as being good, stops being good really soon because we get used to it. So we ended last time with this question, how can we overcome these annoying features? What strategies can we use to do this? And that is what we’re going to reveal and talk about today. How we can overcome these annoying features or these cognitive biases. And we’re going to do that in a particular way, which is we’re going to use a set of strategies that we can intentionally use to overcome our biases. And I’m putting that word ‘intentionally’ in bold and in color in part because this is the part that really matters. Our minds are naturally not going to want to use any of these strategies. These are the things that we need to do effortfully and intentionally to make things better. And we’re harkening back to the quote that we started with in our first lecture in this How of Happiness lecture by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who talked about how we have this pie chart of the things we can intentionally control. And she notes that with these intentional, effortful activities, we can have a powerful effect of how happy we are even much more so than our genetics or much more so than our circumstances. But it’s these things - intentional, effortful - they’re not going to be habits immediately, we’re going to have to work to get them to be that. And so with that, we jump into these strategies that you’re going to intentionally use. And as I said at the beginning, this is going to be your homework. You’re to be thinking about these things really in terms of habits that you can implement this week and which ones will actually work for you. We’re going to go backwards through strategies that help the biases from the reverse direction. And if you recall, the main thing we were focused on at the end last time was this idea that we get used to stuff and that that sucks, because we get used to the stuff that’s really good in our lives and we want to feel it being new and so on. And so how can we, in some sense, get over getting used to stuff? Overcome this horrible thing of hedonic adaptation. This idea that like we are happy at first when we get something, but that happiness goes away. Just as a reminder for folks who missed last time, we saw lots of graphs that look like this. We have this awesome thing that makes us happy, something like marriage. And makes us happy for a little bit, and then over time, that happiness goes down. And what we saw is that, that basically happens in all of these awesome cases, from having an awesome job to having tons of money, getting into Yale as you guys all laughed about. Did you wake up this morning and say, “Holy cow! Oh My God! I’m at Yale”. I bet very few of you did that because hedonic adaptation. And all those hedonic adaptation, we have the awesome stuff. But, how can we use strategies to overcome this stuff? We’ll start at the bottom on strategies we can use to stop hedonic adaptation for awesome stuff, because the awesome stuff that we talk about is a particularly insidious thing. Stuff is usually like a thing that we buy, a nice car, a new house, and it has this terrible feature where it’s not really dynamic at all. It doesn’t change at all, and it sticks around. And that means stuff that we buy, is the worst culprit of our hedonic adaptation. And so, when we think about the strategy we’re going to use, it’s going to be that we’re going to stop investing in stuff in the first place. From now on, as you think about the kinds of things you can do to make yourselves happy, think about not investing in awesome stuff as much. Why? Well, as we were saying, first of all, it doesn’t make us as happy as we think. We think we have the new house is going to make us super, super happy, but in practice, it doesn’t. And it doesn’t in part because it sticks around. It’s the same house day in and day out, and we just get used to it. Same thing with all the other awesome stuff we have, awesome cars, and so on. They end up sticking around and that means we get bored with them. And there’s a wonderful quip by the psychologist Dan Gilbert, who you heard about last time, “Part of us believe that the new car is better because it lasts longer. But in fact, that’s the worst thing about the new car. It will stay around to disappoint you”. This is the problem with stuff that sticks around. We get used to it. And so the new car, it hangs out, we stop paying attention to it. The longer it lasts in some sense, the more time we have to get used to it, which is so boring. And so, the first strategy we’re going to think of, and this is for thinking about new things in your life, is don’t invest in stuff, invest instead in things that are not going to stick around, namely experiences. What do I mean about experiences? But just like anything you could pay money to that gives you happiness, that’s not a thing, that’s like something you experience. So going on vacation, or spending some time in an awesome art gallery, or going to Europe to check out the wonderful paintings there, or going to a concert. Even something short like going out to eat, or enjoying a delicious dessert. Those are the kinds of things that are experiences and they’re not going to stick around. You’re not going to have time to adapt to them. And Dan Gilbert also quips about this, he notes, “A new car sticks around to disappoint you. But a trip to Europe is over. It evaporates. It has the good sense to go away, and leave you with nothing but your wonderful memory”. And it seems like our intuition is like, “Why would we want to invest in an awesome vacation? We could get a car, that car is going to stick around and be useful to us in the future”. But again, this is a spot where our minds are giving us the wrong feedback. We actually get more happiness than we expect out of experiences. Like the fact that the vacation is only a week long is a good thing. Like the fact that you can’t be in this room looking at this art for very long means you don’t have time to get used to it. Same thing with a concert. I think the longest concert I went to was three hours, and that was good. If it lasted any longer, it would be terrible. Same thing with a delicious glass of wine. So you want it to keep going, but if it kept going that would be bad. You actually want stuff that goes away. And so, that’s the intuition that experiences should make us happier because they go away. But is this really true? Are people who invest in experiences actually happier? Is it the case that people who buy more of these are happier than people who buy more of that? And for individual people, if you were to invest in experiences over stuff, would you feel happier? Well, this is what Leaf Van Boven and Tom Gilovich studied. They actually had people come in and say think about an experiential or material purchase you made that’s over $100. So you can think about this and specifically something you bought to make you happy, not some textbook that you had to buy because you had to. Think of something that you’ve ever spent that like actually you got to be happy. It says, “when you think about this, how happy does it make you?” Just like very simply, does it make you not at all happy or very much? And they asked other things like, how good of an investment was it and so on. And so here’s what they find, is that when you think about how happy it makes you, how happy does it make you? Well, you get higher ratings for just thinking about the experiential purchase. Does it contribute to your happiness now? Even like still when you think back to it, does it contribute? Yes, these numbers are bigger for experiences. And also, was it money well spent in retrospect? Like did you actually think it was a better use of your money? And what you find is that yes, it was. So all of these measures of happiness, both at the time and retrospectively, you think of experiences as better. What they worried about in this first paper though was, well, maybe that’s just for all of us very well-off people. We’re all here at Yale. We have lots of awesome stuff. Maybe we have as much awesome stuff as we need and therefore, getting new awesome stuff isn’t going to help us. So we might as well invest in experiences. But the idea is maybe people from lower incomes or people who don’t have as much stuff, maybe if they got stuff that would make them happier. So maybe it’s like really just a function of being a richer kind of folk that we get this. And so, to test this, they looked across different financial incomes to say, does this pattern hold across everybody? And here is what they found, that hash marked bar is the different experiences that you purchase, and what they find is that every level of income experiential purchases make us happier than material ones. But it does in fact get bigger as you get to higher and higher salaries. So again, thinking back to what we learned the first time, most of your median income is going to be around $76,000. You guys are definitely going to be way better off investing in experiences than in material stuff. And so, it does seem like investing in experiences is good, but there’s a couple of other ways that investing in experiences allow us to get over our hedonic adaptation. And one of these is that when we’re thinking about purchasing different experiences, so when you’re sitting at your computer doing your problems set and you’re thinking about your spring break vacation, that can actually make you very happy. And so researchers hypothesize that maybe this is another way that experiences help us is that even before we have the experience, the anticipation of it, thinking about it actually gives us a little happiness boost. Is this really true? Well, this is what Kumar and colleagues tried to look at. They had people think about some experiential or material purchase you plan to make soon. So you’d say think about the next big purchase you’re going to make, either a thing or some sort of experience that you plan to have. And you say, “how does the anticipation of this purchase make you feel?” And they said, “are you feeling happier like you’re feeling more excited, or is the feeling of anticipation bad? Is it more like impatience?” Then they also very explicitly had people rate whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. And so, what do you find? Well, what they found is that if you look at the excitement levels, they’re higher for experience than material. So it’s more excitement and less impatience to get it. And if you look at the pleasantness, it’s almost two and a half times as pleasant to think about the fact that you’re going to go on this cool ski trip, or the fact that you’re going to go to this awesome concert than it is that you’re going to buy a new pair of shoes or a nice Canada goose jacket or something like that. Thinking about these experiential purchases makes us really happy. Finally, it seems like we really look forward to these experiential purchases in a way that we might not. And just the fact that you’re a person that tends to do that, that tends to think about your future experiential purchases, that might make you happier than tending to be a materialistic person that tends to think about your next material purchases. And to test this, they used this cool technique that we’ll see a few times in this course, which is called experience sampling. Basically, what they do is they get people’s cell phone number and they give them a little app. And then, every once in a while throughout the day, they’ll send them a little blip that says, “Check in and answer these questions”. And usually, they’ll just ask something simple like, “How happy are you feeling right now, on a scale of one to a hundred?” And this lets them tag, okay, what are the kinds of things you’re doing in your day? Just a random day that let you think in terms of what’s making you happy. And so if you give your happiness rating, and then, they ask you this question, “hey, what were you thinking about?” And you can go, “I was thinking about lunch. I was thinking about this stuff”. Some people, who just by chance, will be thinking about a future purchase. And they say, “Oh, that’s great. Now, you’re in our sample”. And they say, “was it causing you to experience excitement or impatience? Was it causing you to be pleasant or unpleasant?” And then, they tag what the purchase was, was it a material purchase or an experiential purchase? And so, here’s what we find mapping across these mean happiness ratings. That bar at the top is how happy you are. And what you find is when I ping you and I say, “how happy are you?” If you happen to be thinking about an experiential purchase, if you’re thinking about the ski trip that’s coming up, you are just necessarily happier than if you happen to be thinking about a material purchase that you were thinking of. And this is coded for how much that purchase cost. So already, we’re seeing this happiness effect, but we see that that’s because of two different things. One is that experiential purchases are making us feel more excited and less impatient. It’s like if you just bought this new set of shoes, you want it to come in. You put it on Amazon Prime. You’re like, “When is this going to get here?” It feels really impatient. But in the context of experiential purchases, we’re feeling excited. And then same thing about pleasantness. They just feel better to wait for these experiential things than not. The sad thing though is that this phenomenon, which seems to be pretty robust across a couple of studies, that we like waiting for experiential purchases and that we’re going to like them better, is another thing that falls prey to this thing that our mind delivers to us intuitions that are just wrong, because we don’t actually believe that this is the case. And this is what a set of other researchers looked at. They said, “these findings feel wrong to me, let’s check and see if this is really the case”. And they had people make predictions. Think about an experiential purchase or a material purchase that you’re about to make, and do you think your money is going to be well spent? You have to forecast that. And then, they come back and ask you later how was it. And so, if you’re thinking about a forecast before you buy something, you have the intuition that probably some of you are having when I’m telling you these data, which is like, “Yeah, those studies are all well and good. But that’s not what I feel about my purchases”. In fact, people are forecasting they’re going to be about half as happy with an experiential purchase as a material purchase. They forecast that they’re going to think it was half as good money well spent. But when you actually look at people’s real post-consumption ratings, they’re higher two weeks after post-consumption for the experience and even four weeks after post-consumption. Long after this thing has evaporated away and you still have that stuff that you bought, you’re still happier with that experience that you’ve had before. But again, we don’t seem to realize it. And so, with that, we can say one strategy already that all of you should adopt moving forward for all your future purchases to make you happy, is that because you don’t adapt to experiences, they’re going to make you happier than stuff will. Even if your intuition is telling you otherwise, that’s just wrong. Really you’re going to be happier thinking about experiences. So, as you think about how you’re going to treat yourself by buying yourself stuff, switch it around. Think of a cool thing to do, a ski trip and so on. Think of free things to do that are experiences and then, you save money on top of it. Anyway, great individual strategy to get you going. It’s actually worth noting that experiences are better than stuff not just because you don’t adapt to them, they’re actually better for other reasons too, which makes this one of the most powerful techniques you’re going to learn about in this course. One of the reasons they’re better than stuff is that when you tell people about your experiences, it’s just way more fun for everybody else than when you tell people about your stuff. So imagine like you hear about somebody’s cool ski trip, that’s actually fun. But when you hear about somebody’s new Canada goose jacket, how warm it’s made them, that’s just boring and it kind of sucks. And it turns out that this is one of the reasons that experiential purchases are better, is that it helps other people resonate with you. To test this, Leaf Van Boven and colleagues actually did this study where they had friends rate hearing about other people’s experiential or material purchases. And if you had them rate your overall impression of that person, that is higher after talking about experiences than material stuff. If you had other friends rate how psychologically well-adjusted are you, you get people to think you’re much more psychologically well-adjusted if you invest in experiences than material things. And here’s one of my favorite slides you’ll see today. This is a list of the adjectives that people spontaneously talk about after their friends told them about material purchase or an experiential purchase. And you can see much more negative ones on that side. Self-centered, 33 percent of people after hearing with this say, “Oh, he’s self-centered, he’s insecure, blah, blah, blah”. But over here, it’s like, “Oh, he’s humorous, and friendly, and open-mindedness”. You actually make people think you’re twice as humorous by investing in experiences. And so, this is kind of additional reason, not even about hedonic adaptation why experiences are better. It’s like people just dig you better if you’re the kind of person that invests in experiences. But there’s a final reason taking us back to something we talked to last time, that experiences are better than material stuff and that experiences are less susceptible to social comparison. It’s harder to compare your ski trip versus somebody else’s ski trip. It’s much easier to compare your car versus somebody else’s car. And that means that if we’re the type of people who invest in experiences, we’re less susceptible to social comparison. And we know this from a cool study by Howell and Hill, who actually did the normal things, talk about an experience or a material purchase you just made, and do all these ratings for it about your happiness. And when they do that, and they ask you about how happy it made you, was this money well spent and so on, they find the same thing that everybody else finds. They kind of replicate these other findings where experiential purchases are also better. But they find two other things that have to do with your social relations after that. The first is, did that purchase make other people happier, or was it just you? And here, you’re starting to see an even bigger effect that experiential purchases just seem to make other people happy. Sometimes it’s because they include other people in a way that stuff often doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just you telling people about your crazy experience and it makes other people happy. But even more important is the fact that when you take measures of social comparison, do you compare your experiences versus somebody else? Do you feel envious of somebody else? Now that’s the only spot where these measures start to flip. And so, you’re just less likely to socially compare your experiences with others, that means one of those annoying features of your mind that’s constantly making you feel less good about what you have isn’t an operation for experiences in the same way as for stuff. And so, all these things suggest that the first strategy you can do to make yourself happier is to invest in experiences rather than stuff. If you move forward with all your purchases into the future doing that, you’re going to be better off.
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