Part 3 - Reset Your Reference Points
It feels like the kind of thing you don't want but turns out it can have a powerful effect on both resetting your reference point and inhibiting hedonic adaptation, and that's interrupting your consumption. But it turns out that if you can force yourself to have an interruption in the good times, to stop it and then come back to it later, what you find is that you're actually setting your reference point in a very positive way. You don't predict - you think you're going to be at the basic same level but you start re-experiencing what you liked about this song before, you've broken your hedonic adaptation, and you've changed your reference point.
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That was strategies for getting over getting used to stuff. You’re thwarting hedonic adaptation at its core. Now, we’re going to talk about a second set of strategies that you can use to overcome the other annoying feature we talked about last time. And that’s this phenomena of reference points. I’m going to teach you strategies for how you can reset your reference points. Just a reminder, well, what’s a reference point, what we saw last time that it’s this salient, but completely irrelevant standard against which we’re constantly comparing things. We saw our minds don’t care about absolutes. They’re constantly comparing stuff against something else and sometimes that comparison looks bad. Sometimes like, “Oh, man all those other blue circles are so much bigger than me. I’m so small”. And sometimes those comparisons are good. Sometimes we’re like, “Oh, those blue circles, I’m so much better than them,” and so on. The problem though is that we’re often not picking which circles we’re comparing against. The problem is that what we saw last time is that all these comparisons come in for free. We cannot stop them. And so, that’s kind of our problem. And what we saw last time is that reference points are kind of affecting our happiness judgments all the time even though we don’t realize they are. I’ll just give you one more example. So I just think this study is really funny. We didn’t get to it last time, But, Carey Morewedge and colleagues is very interested in how these biases affect our preferences of food and our food consumption. And so, he does this really simple study of he makes you predict how happy you’re going to be if you eat different potato chips. And he lets you eat the potato chips. So, he’ll say, “how happy are you going to be if you eat these potato chips?” You make some prediction. But when actually you eat the potato chips, I add these different contrast points, I either have you eat potato chips just by themselves or have you eat potato chips when there’s a really delicious chocolate sitting on the table, that you probably would like more But you’re eating the potato chips. Or I have you eat potato chips where there’s a really gross thing of sardines sitting on the table. And what you find is that, as you might predict, these comparisons matter. It show almost twice as likely to enjoy these potato chips if you’re eating them next to the sardines and you reduce your liking of the potato chips if you eat them next to the chocolate. This means when you go in the dining, ignore the Nutella, like walk by the delicious things and only see the things you’re [inaudible]. But this is like potato chips, a simple act of like having something else there can mess up your ability to enjoy this one thing. And what we saw last time is that this is happening to us all the time. We constantly are faced with these reference points that we don’t think are getting in, but they are. And they can be crazy ones. We saw last time that even the people on TV are affecting the kind of salary that we think is appropriate for ourselves. We don’t realize this stuff is getting in, but it’s getting in and it’s affecting us a lot. And we saw, of course, last time all these cases where other people and the other things they have on social media is getting in and affecting us, that social comparison can be a super powerful reference point, that’s really just sucky and seems to make us unhappy with the stuff that we have. And so, how do we bust this stuff up? How do we reset our reference points and use better ones? Well, there are a couple different strategies we’re going to talk about. One is what I’m what I call concretely re-experiencing. The other is concretely observing. Then we’re going to talk more about how we can avoid social comparisons. How we can interrupt our consumption to kind of like switch what our reference point is. And how you can increase variety and why that matters. We’ll start with this idea of concretely re-experiencing, what do I mean by this? Well, what we saw is that one of the reference points that mess us up is what we used to think was there before. Like we had this idea of what we used to think, we get into a new circumstance, and at that moment, the new circumstance seems awesome because we have this new thing that we saw before. But we quickly forget what our reference point was before, our new reference point is just this new thing. This happens a lot in the context of jobs. So for you all to get your dream jobs. Some people’s dream job is working at Google. You get your job working at Google. The moment that you find that out in the first week or so, it’s awesome. You are like, Google is amazing. They have all this free food. This is great. But a year into Google, that’s just your reference point. That’s just like where you work. How can you get over that? Well, the idea of concretely re-experiencing is find a way to go back and re-experience what your old reference point was like before. Like if you were at some crappy job before Google, literally go back to that place and remind yourself what it was like. Like re-experience the bad thing before or if you were just unemployed before that, like take some time to like concretely use your imagination and think about what this was like. Or do the kind of version we talked about before, like take eight minutes and like replay what your life was like back then and write down what it felt like. And all of a sudden that will switch your reference point. It will turn it back on. Some people even say to go back for a couple of weeks if you have a new job that’s paying you a lot. Go back to a couple of weeks of what that salary felt like before, what your old salary felt like, and then you will feel your new salary again. And all of a sudden, it will be nice. But this is the idea. You can concretely go back and re-experience the things that you didn’t feel before and you’ll kind of reset your reference point that way. I just experienced this a little bit. Just over the weekend, I was away from the delicious dining hall that we have here at Silliman all the time. And I had this moment were I was like, “where am I going to get a bunch of vegetables and greens?” Or there was breakfast and I was like, “how do I achieve breakfast for myself?” Like when you go away, even for a little moment, then you come back and re-experience what life was like before I could just go there and have all this delicious food there. But this is the idea. Take the things that you like, the things that you realize you’re taking for granted, and can you go back and really make yourself have a habit of re-experiencing the stuff as it was before? Before you got the good thing and then, you’ll start appreciating even more. The flip side of this is the opposite sort of thing. It’s finding a reference point that’s not as good as yours and concretely observing what that reference point is really like. Like actually going to see what it is really like can sometimes make you realize the practicals of this thing against what you’re comparing. You can actually see how good or how bad it is. So you come to a wonderful place like Yale and you sometimes forget that you could be in a situation that would be much worse. You could be at Harvard where the rooms are crappy and your roommates are weird looking, stuff like this. But the idea is you can just simulate that. Or you could concretely go and see how terrible it is to live this other life, right? And here’s just, I guess this is a Yale preview of Harvard, it was like, “Sucks so badly. It’s not funny. Who is this architect? All these ugly buildings suck”. But the point is like I’m making fun of Harvard. But here is the idea. You constantly have these kind of fantasy things that are a thing of like if only I was doing X or if only I had X, you could actually go out and concretely observe what that is. And sometimes when you do that, your fantasy of what it looks like actually comes into reality and you realize that thing that I’ve been thinking about, actually has some of the same problems that I have. And that can kind of reset your reference point about which things you’re paying attention to and kind of be a little bit more accurate about it. And so this is the idea of concretely observing, really see what the other half is like and then sometimes you’ll like what you have even more. Third, and we kind of alluded to this last time, is that the worst kinds of reference points are other people. And if we can avoid using those reference points, we will be a lot happier. So we talked about this in the context of social media, seeing other people’s Snapchat stories makes us make faces like this where we just get kind of sad. Like what can we do to overcome this? Well, the good news is there is a bunch of individual strategies you can start using. Some of which you might like, but some of which you might find a little hard. So pick the ones that work best for you. One is a technique that comes from cognitive behavioral therapy and folks who want to stop ruminating, which is just called the Stop Technique, which is that sometimes you can be mindful and catch yourself doing these comparisons and you need to give your brain a moment to just like shut it up and tell it, it’s not supposed to be doing that anymore. And so, here’s the technique. You’re like looking through a Snapchat feed and you’re like, “Oh man, Joe is having such awesome weekend”. And you notice yourself doing that. You have a moment where you notice you’re making this comparison, you just out loud literally say, “Stop!” And that causes your brain to take a moment to be like, wait, it’s not the habitual thing you tend to do as your comparisons are working. And so it sort of forces you to do a stop think on things. And it sounds a little crazy but if you can be in that mode where you’re catching yourself doing this, you’re catching your own evaluations being about what other people are doing as opposed to absolutely about your own worth and your stuff, you force yourself to do a stop think. Sometimes that can have a powerful effect on breaking those kinds of connections. Another thing you can do is just go back to that practice of gratitude. Turns out another reason that gratitude works so well, is it stops our social comparison. If you’re experiencing lots of gratitude for the things that you have and your stuff, your attention is limited. You can’t be doing that at the same time, you’re thinking about somebody else’s thing and being envious. Gratitude is a kind of killer of envy. And so the more you practice that on your own, the less likely you’re going to be making those social comparisons in the first place. You just don’t have enough attentional bandwidth to do it. So, yet another reason to write in your gratitude journal and feel grateful for things. A third thing I think is to be conscious of the kinds of social comparisons you’re letting in. What we saw is that we actually don’t have information. We don’t actually have the ability to see these things and to control what comes in. We’re watching TV. We’re watching advertisements. Those are just the reference points we’re getting for free, and we can’t stop that. But you can change your feed around. If you’re worried about social comparisons for body-image, don’t be looking at the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, like pay more attention to these Dove Real Beauty campaigns, and Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, and some sense like support campaigns that are trying to come up with reference points that are healthier at least from a kind of body-image standpoint. But this is the idea, what are the reference points you’re letting in all the time? Are they ones where you’re always going to be making this upward social comparison that’s going to make you feel bad or are you actually allowing the information that’s getting in to be a little bit more accurate, a little bit more representative of real people’s salaries, real people’s bodies, real people’s experiences at Yale, real people’s jobs and so on? So you can kind of switch things around by curating your own information you get. Once it gets in, you don’t have much chance of stopping it, but you have some control over the kinds of information you let get in. Finally, the thing that I think most of you are going to say you don’t want to do, but I’m going to put it out there anyway, which is what we’ve seen is that social media provides a powerful mechanism of getting in yucky social comparisons. Ones that inevitably make us feel bad, and even when we think they’re making us feel good, as we saw last time, even when we do downward social comparisons on social media, it doesn’t actually make us feel better. The data just suggests this is not making you happier. And so the final suggestion is just like go to your account and just get rid of it. In honor of this, since I was giving this lecture, on Sunday, I went on my phone, and I deleted my Twitter and my Facebook which were the two major social media things I use. I didn’t delete my accounts to be fair. I just deleted them from my phone. But it’s meant that I actually haven’t been on them for a whole week, and I can self-report that I think I’m feeling a lot happier. And so I’m just going to put it out there. You could do it. Facebook too, you can do that. This is the button you’ll get. Just delete that. And then, no more bad social comparisons. But if you’re not going to do that, I would encourage you to think mindfully about when you’re doing it. At least pay attention when you’re on there. And if you’re experiencing those social comparisons, use one of those other techniques. Use a stop think, try to get a more accurate feed that really reflects what’s going on and so on. Okay. So that’s how to avoid social comparisons. Now, we’re going to do another one that feels like it should be a bad technique. It feels like the kind of thing you don’t want but turns out it can have a powerful effect on both resetting your reference point and inhibiting hedonic adaptation, and that’s interrupting your consumption. So we’re faced with good things in life, I’m going back to my cat with his happy hot dogs. We want the good things in our life to continue. We want to keep eating the hot dogs forever. We want the good times to roll and keep rolling. But it turns out that if you can force yourself to have an interruption in the good times, to stop it and then come back to it later, what you find is that you’re actually setting your reference point in a very positive way. So imagine I’m eating hot dogs, my reference point is eating hot dogs. Everything’s great. When I eat the next hot dog, it’s not going to give me a new boost of happiness because I’m already acting like I’m eating hot dogs and everything is great reference point. If I stopped for a while and came back to it, you get this reboost that overcomes hedonic adaptation and resets your reference point. And it’s just from the simple thing of pausing and coming back to good experiences later. What are the actual data on this? Well, Nelson and colleagues have done a couple cute studies on this. Giving people positive experiences, sometimes even asking them, would you like to interrupt this and come back to it? Get people to kind of forecast it. As you might predict, people are like, “No, I want to keep going with this good experience”. And then showing what really happens. And so he did this in a kind of funny context. He had people listen to their favorite song or their favorite song over and over again. And he said, you’re either going to listen to that or we’re going to listen to it with breaks like which would you prefer? And then he saw people’s actual happiness when they did that. And so this is people listening to their favorite song without a break. So this is time. So A is like what happens over time, B is like where there would be a break, and C is where it continues. So if you don’t have a break, there’s no B. It just kind of continues. And what are we seeing here? Our favorite hedonic adaptation curve, right? You start listening to your favorite song and it’s great and it’s great. You start to get less happy and less enjoyment out of it over time. What happens if we put a break? So you’re listening to your favorite song, you’re jamming, and all of a sudden, at time point B, it just stops for a little while, and then it comes back on. All right. What actually happens to your happiness? Well, this is the curve for when you get a break. It’s basically the same curve you are hedonically like you’re enjoying it. It’s going down and down. All of a sudden, you get a break. That kind of does suck. Like you’re like, “This is stupid”. But then, when the song comes back on, what happens to your enjoyment, it just goes back up again, right? You don’t predict - you think you’re going to be at the basic same level but you start re-experiencing what you liked about this song before, you’ve broken your hedonic adaptation, and you’ve changed your reference point. Your reference point here is like, “Oh. I wasn’t listening to any good music”. And you can kind of increase your happiness. This even occurs in a domain where we think it’s really not going to, which is in the context of TV. So now we have devices that get rid of commercials, and get rid of these interruptions in our TV. But based on this research, could it be the case that commercials like even really bad commercials actually make us enjoy the program more. And so this is what Nelson looked at in this study. He had people watch a cheesy sitcom, and tried to rate how much they liked that cheesy sitcom relative to some other cheesy sitcom. So it’s either going to be liking it more or liking it less. And he had that sitcom play that they were thinking about with commercials or with no commercials. And the question is whether they liked it more. First, he had people forecast and what people forecasted is probably what you think, and the makers of TiVo thought, which is that your enjoyment of the disrupted one is going to go way down relative to the baseline. What actually happens is in fact the opposite. That what happens over time as you’re watching your Big Bang Theory or whatever. It’s just like getting boring. You’re used to it. You’ve been doing that. But when you have the commercials, and you come back from the commercial break, you get the sustained blip every single time the commercial comes back up, and it means your overall enjoyment is higher. What does this mean? It means you should be splitting the awesome things that you love most in life. So every time you face a delicious thing, a wonderful thing, a wonderful event, and so on. You could just cruise through that whole thing and not notice or you could split it and pause, and come back to it. And the key is that every time you do that, you’re going to bump out of your hedonic adaptation curve, you’re going to get a good reference point, and you’re going to enjoy it more. A concrete spot where I’ve done this lately. It’s not the most environmental move, but I recommend it anyway for happiness boost. As you go on Amazon Prime, sometimes you go on it’s like Amazon bingeing thing. You buy a bunch of things and it all ships together, and you go to the post office. As you get your box, you’re so happy, and you have a bunch of things in it. But like that moment when you first open it is really good, but like then all those other things don’t give you as much of a happiness boost as you want. So if you had the Amazon Prime come in separate shipments. Every day you went, you get the happiness boost. That would bump up your happiness. As I said not very environmental. If you’re on prime it doesn’t cost you as much, but anyway simple technique you can do. Upshot is think about your consumption, the good things in the world and split them as much as possible. This also has a corollary, which is worth mentioning, which is that for bad things you want to hedonically adapt to them quickly. And that means if you’re dealing with bad things in your life, don’t try to break them up try to squish them all together. Like if you have a horrible problem set that you don’t want to do, do the whole thing at once. Don’t break it up into 15-minute things where you take a break, because every time you go back to it, it’s going to be bad. This is what I do in the context of exercise. I like to exercise, but I don’t like the act of exercising at the time. So you got to like hit it all as much as possible, and then you won’t notice as much if you break it up. Anyway that’s interrupting your positive consumption, and we’ll end with this idea of increasing your variety. And we kind of know this implicitly but we forget. We think, if you go to an ice cream shop, you go to Ashley’s or something on campus, and you get the same ice cream every day. By the time you get to the fifth one, it’s going to not be as good. You’re going to be hedonically adapted to it. It’s going to be really not that interesting a comparison relative to your reference point. But, in life, if you switch things up and you do different things every time. By the time you come back to something, it’s actually going to feel better. It’s going to be different, why? You’re breaking up your adaptation, and you’re changing your reference point. We can think about this, and it kind of makes sense when you think about it, but we forget how much of our lives end up in these sort of routines that we’re not mixing up in any way. From the classes we take every single time we go to the classes and the way we think about them to the routines that we have with our friends, to the things that we do when we’re having fun. Like the more you do the same thing over and over again, the less you have variety, the more you’re just going to kind of adapt to it, and the more it’s going to be a super boring reference point. So just doing things a little bit more variably, can actually increase our happiness a lot. This is also true in terms of timing, right? So you eat one ice cream and have the next one 14 seconds later. That other ice cream is your reference point is super boring. But if you kind of split it up and move your reference points further and further away, then this can make you happier. It’s kind of a corollary of interrupting your consumption. It’s like actually have the good things in your life happen relatively not frequently, and you’ll actually enjoy them more. Again, counter-intuitive, you space out the good things in your life even more and they become happier in part because they’re increasing your variety. And so this is a final reason, kind of going back to what we started with in the beginning, the experiences are better than stuff. Like stuff tends not to change very much over time. You buy your car, and it’s just going to be the same car. It’s going to be the same color. The drive is going to be the same, like nothing changes about it. But experiences tend to be, they tend to be pretty dynamic. They’re going to change a little bit over the time. They’re not going to be the same thing at any one point. And that’s one of the reasons why we like it so much, because even in the context of the experience happening, it ends up being much more dynamic. And so this is another hint even for your stuff that you have is, how can you actually make it dynamic? How can you allow it to feel like it’s changed around a little bit because that’s the kind of thing our minds notice, those are the kinds of things that are going to make us happy.
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