The Meaning of Happiness Changes Over Your Lifetime

Swinging Happiness for BlogThe following is a scientific and personal article written by CAH member Troy Campbell about happiness.

One lovely afternoon, I began chatting to my grandpa. I was completely unaware he was about to say something that would change my view of happiness forever.

In the middle of our conversation, I felt a lull so I pulled out the classic question. “If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be?” I couldn’t wait to talk about my long list of dead presidents, dead Beatles, dead scientists, and a really cute living movie star. But I was also really eager to hear what he’d say.

Then he simply answered, “My wife.”

I immediately assured him it’s not necessary for him to answer like that. We all knew he loves his wife, whom he eats dinner with every night and was currently over in the other room playing cards.

He still insisted, “My wife. I’d have a nice dinner with my wife.”

“Alright,” I said, maybe a little too snappy, “Someone other than your wife.”

“Well okay, it would be my good friend and neighbor, Bill,” He replied.

The I became a little angry and pleaded, “Come on, you wouldn’t pick like John Lennon or Abraham Lincoln or FDR? He was alive when you were, right?”

“No. I’d pick Bill.”

I was just about to explain the point of the game again when it hit me. He already understood the game, and he was not trying to mess with me. What would make him most happy would be to have the same meal he has everyday, with the woman he’s been married to for 50 years.

Happiness to him was ordinary.

***

Over the past years, the interest in happiness has exploded. Everyone seems to want to be happy, read about how to be happy, or listen to Pharrells’ hit song, “Happy.” In response, researchers and gurus have been trying to feed everyone’s interest in happiness by pumping out new studies and New York Times bestsellers.

However, there’s been one factor that’s been missing in all this happiness discussion and in retrospect, it seems ridiculously obvious. That factor is age. As the story of my grandfather vividly displays, at different ages, we are interested in very different kinds of happiness.

Two young psychologists have recently stepped onto the scene and started to explain how happiness varies over the lifetime. Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth University and Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania find that the young find happiness and self-definition through extraordinary experiences, like meeting a celebrity. In contrast, older adults find happiness and self-definition through everyday experiences, like dinner with a best friend or wife.

To fully illustrate this concept, consider any family vacation. Think about how difficult it always is to make both the children and parents happy. This is because happiness means something different to younger and older members of the family.

The young crave the extraordinary. They long to bungee jump off a cliff, find a celebrity, and post a stylized Instagram photo that exaggerates the extraordinariness of the moment. Youth culture embraces the concept the of Yolo — “You Only Live Once” — which is just a modern (and arguably more annoying) way to say “carpe diem,” which is just a Latin way to say “seize the day.” Yolo is not something new; it’s just a rebranding of the youth mindset that’s always been around.

In contrast, older people tend to find happiness and define themselves in the ordinary experiences that comprise daily life. So, on vacation, parents often just want to spend time as a family. They want to have a nice family dinner and play card games.

What’s important about Bhattacharjee and Mogilner’s happiness hypothesis is that it is a psychological hypothesis rather than a cultural hypothesis. The scientists argue that with fewer days left in their lives, people start to focus on daily experiences and close-knit friendships. And that’s exactly what the researchers find through a controlled experiment. When they took 20-somethings and made them feel as if their brains would stop optimally functioning at age 40 (as opposed to age 80), the 20-somethings felt like they had less time left and were more interested in everyday happiness activities. They end up acting more like older people.

It’s worth noting that these findings greatly contrast the “Bucket List” hypothesis, the idea that as people feel their days are running out, they are motivated to do the extraordinary. For instance, in the film The Bucket List, two aging men strive to have the most extraordinary experiences possible. Though these cases do exist in society, they may be the exception. In general the rule is that as people feel like they are aging, they turn away from the extraordinary and, like my grandfather, focus on the everyday.

***

So if happiness is as important a goal in life as American culture makes it seem, we need to understand how age affects it. Only then can we know how to better treat our families, communities, and citizens of all ages. Only then will we all be happy, even if happy will mean different things to different people at different stages of their lives.

Fashion and Science – The “Matchy Equation”

FabulousnessHere’s a perfect Friday post for you, featuring science on a lighter topic. Credit to Slate.com and author Alina Simone.

A woman breezes ahead of you on an airport walkway looking like a page out of Vogue. What is it about her, you wonder as you drag your squeaking roller-bag with a hoodie tied around your waist, that makes her so exquisitely fashionable? The classic cut of her blazer? The Mandarin collar on her silk shirt? That vented trench coat with welt pockets? Well, that certain je ne sais quoi has now been sewed up by science. Specifically:

Fashionableness  =  -.50m2 + .62m + .49 where m = matching z-score.

Or put another way: Don’t be too matchy-matchy.

That’s the conclusion a team of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Gray arrived at after conducting a pioneering study of the sad question confronting the sartorially challenged each morning: What exactly makes an outfit fashionable? Of course, we perceive clothing as chic for many reasons, not the least of which has to do with whatever Maisie Williams or Ryan Gosling wore to the Best People on Earth Awards. But Gray and his team hypothesized that there must be some pattern underlying our aesthetic preferences.

To read the rest of this article about CAH member Nina Strohminger’s new work click here.

 

Why People Crave Both Freedom and Constraint

awesomestuffThe following is an article Troy Campbell and features research by CAH members, non CAH members, and Troy’s dissertation.

Today, consumers desire to interact rather than to just mindlessly consume. Consumers don’t want to just read; they want to comment. They don’t want to just watch TV; they want to live tweet. They don’t want to just dance at a new club; they want to share the whole night on Instagram.

Consumers want to do more than just “enjoy the moment.” Modern consumers crave what consumer scientists Darren Dahl and Page Moreau call “constrained creativity.” Constrained creativity is defined as an activity with two components. First, the activity has enough freedom for consumers to be creative. Second, and importantly, the activity has enough structure to guide consumers and measure their success, such as through norms or goals.

When we look at what modern consumers love, we readily see these two components. On Twitter, people like the freedom of making original comments but also benefit from the structure of twitter’s enforced length and trending hashtags. With modern expansive video games like BioShock, the freedom is to explore and decide, but within the structure of the game.

Modern technology allows products and experiences to tap into people’s most ancient and basic motives. We love to compete, show off and create. These are basic feelings that even babies and animals crave and enjoy. Modern pleasures like the open world video games and Twitter engage modern consumers in a way that other activities of the past just do not. They provide more than basic entertainment; they provide a semi-structured “game” and an opportunity for self-expression.

Consider even the mundane phenomenon of self-serve frozen yogurt. The reason frozen yogurt has become so popular may not be entirely due to its taste, but to the opportunity for constrained creativity. There is joy in self-serving, there is pride in crafting the perfect swirl and there is self-expression in creating a yogurt that is uniquely personal.

From self-serve frozen yogurt, to Twitter, to video games, entertainment is changing. Whether this change is overall “good” or “bad” for people is an open debate. However, one thing is for certain: This change is powerful enough that if any business cares about obtaining and retaining consumers, they’d better feed people’s craving for constrained creativity. They must understand the modern happiness equation: Happiness = freedom + structure .

Of course, this equation has always been true, but today’s consumers are getting more and more tastes of constrained creativity. With each new bite of a “freedom + structure” activity, consumers develop a new consumption appetite that cannot be satisfied by the entertainment of the past. Today they crave more.

 

Four Examples of the Freedom + Structure Magic Formula

#1 The IKEA Effect
A Harvard University led study finds that when people build or assemble things (like an IKEA bookcase or frozen yogurt), they like the things more because of the effort and self-involvement. 


#2 Imagined Involvement 
The Tonight Show‘s Jimmy Fallon involves TV audience members directly on Twitter through frequent hashtags. Even if most viewers do not tweet, they may imagine what they would tweet and feel a positive sense of imagined involvement.

#3 Instant Feedback 
Modern technologies provide immediate feedback. If you take a good selfie, you will get likes. If you outsmart a video game boss, you will level up. This tight connection between effort and immediate reward can make technology-based interactive experiences more desirable than real life effort.

#4 Interactive Art 
Chicago’s famous Bean (also called the “Cloud Gate” by no one but the Wikipedia entry) is an artistic “mirror fun house.” Adding to its popularity its launch coincided with the iPhone launch and the proliferation of the camera phone. The Bean invites visitors to create their own art via creative photography or to just take a very interesting selfie.

The Power of Matching Donations

Donations Please for BlogPost from Forbes.com

In a study conducted with Lalin Anik and Dan Ariely of Duke University, social norms were used to incentivize employees to give money to charity. Results were published in the paper Contingent Match Incentives Increase Donations.

In the study, the researchers told a set of contributors to a charitable giving website that their donations would be matched by the charity, but only if a certain percentage of contributors that day either 25, 50, 75, or 100 percent – “upgraded” to a recurring monthly donation. They found that the contributors in the “75 percent” condition contributed at a much higher rate than the other three groups, with as much as a 40 percent increase in committing to recurring donations.

Norton speculates that the higher number is due to a desire to conform to the social norms of other contributors – and not be the cause for the charity to deny matching funds. “No one wants to be the chump that spoils it for everyone else,” Norton says. In other research, that 70-75 percent threshold seems to be the point that has the biggest effect on on behavior – any higher and people may feel like the result is unattainable. The research also shows that the number doesn’t have to correspond to actual rates of participation. Just setting that goal institutes a standard that other people will strive to match.

To read more visit Forbes.com to read Michael Blanding’s article here.

Hindsights: Why Do Tourists Abroad Eat at Subway?

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At the port in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico there are wonderful Mexican restaurants and authentic tasty taco trucks. But where might you find the Americans eating? Mostly at the Starbucks, the Subway, and the Johnny Rockets.

This seems puzzling: Why do Americans go abroad and eat at the most generic American restaurants?

One possibility is that these choices are convenient and safe: the American chains have good locations, are familiar, and have fast service. This may have something to do with it, but there’s another explanation to this puzzle—what’s known as the “American Abroad” syndrome. The crux of the syndrome is that Americans abroad end up feeling really American, so they act American.

Psychologists William McGuire and Rohit Despande find that when people are around a different race, group, or nationality, they think about those differences. Accordingly, how they think of themselves momentarily changes. For instance, many Americans may not constantly think of themselves as an American when living in the suburbs. However, when stepping off a cruise boat into a foreign land, their American identity may immediately become obvious.

Once people start thinking of themselves as American (or any group identity), they are more likely to act inline with that identity.

~Troy Campbell~

Enjoy Summer Movies with a Childlike Wonder Again

With the summer movie season officially starting with The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Though arguably it started this year early with Captain America), it’s time once again to enjoy big budget spectacle movies. But as adults sometimes it can be hard to feel the movie magic we felt as children. Don’t fret! Here are a few tips (inspired by research in consumer psychology) on how to enjoy movies with a childlike wonder.

 #1 As a kid you had more time for movies. So as an adult, you need to make a little extra time.

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When adults see movies, they might talk about the movie for a few minutes afterwards. If they are true nerds, maybe they read a blog or two. But that’s about it. The movie experience starts the night they see it and ends that very same night.

For a kid, the experience doesn’t end when the movie ends. Instead, the movie is an invitation into years of immersion into a fictional world. Kids talk nonstop about movies, force their parents to take them to Toys R Us to buy the action figures, and then expand on those stories through play, reading, fan websites, and video games.

The Fix:

You should make the time to get more involved with a movie world. How “good” you find a movie, can be affected by how much effort you put into it. This means reading blogs about movies and watching the behind the scenes features on the DVDs.

 #2 Kids are encouraged to be excited about movies. So, as an adult you need to find friends that encourage that same excitement.

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Not only do kids feel a sense of wonder with movies, but they are also encouraged to embrace that sense of wonder. Parents encourage their children to tell them about the things they love. No one encourages adults to talk about movies. The guy in the office next to me has explicitly made it clear that he doesn’t want to hear any more about the awesomeness of The Empire Strikes Back.

This is unfortunate, because the suppression of expression is terrible for enjoyment. Professor Sarah Moore of the Alberta School of Business finds when people explain exciting things in a boring way, they end up finding the content boring. But if they explain it in an exciting way, they magnify their enjoyment. The conclusion: if people do not express their passion with strong emotion, they may lose out on some of the passion.

The Fix:

If you want to enjoy movies more, put on a costume and attend a convention where nerd passion is socially encouraged. Or have a Katherine Heigl movie night if that’s more your thing. Or at the very least just post about a movie on Facebook and start a discussion. The point is, if you share your passion with others you can maintain and grow your passion.

#3 As a kid, everything was magical and new. So, as an adult, you need to find new things.

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Remember how impressed you were as a kid by that quarter behind the ear trick? Today you find that completely unimpressive — at least hopefully you do.

The next time you are even slightly impressed by an action movie, think how impressed a kid would be. Kids love things so easily that they probably even thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine was cool.

Scientists find that when people become overexposed to content (e.g., a type of fight scene), our brains stop paying as much attention. Once something is no longer new, our brains tell us to check out, so the joy starts to fade away.

The Fix:

Adults should branch out and start watching slightly “odder” content – I suggest the indie monster film Monsters or a Wes Anderson film. Adults won’t be desensitized to the new type of content, so they’ll likely find more magic and wonder in it. Or, try a more intense movie experience like The Wolf of Wall Street.

 #4 Nostalgia is why we love our childhood movies. So as adults we need to create more instantaneous nostalgia.

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Nostalgia gets a bad rap publicly. However, nostalgia is a very powerful feeling, and there are many positive reasons to spend some quality time indulging in nostalgia.

The great thing about nostalgia is that nostalgic memories tend to be linked to memories of social connections. For instance people’s memories of Star Wars are wrapped up in memories of their parents showing it to them for the first time or playing “Rebels vs. Empire” with their friends. These connected memories bring about the feelings of warmth, support, and love that fulfill humans’ greatest needs.

You might even think that movies from your childhood were terrible, but love those movies nonetheless. You love those movies because they have meaning to you. The emotional connections and meanings are sometimes more important to you than the quality of the film.

The Fix:

If you want to enjoy modern movies more, you need to make movie-going become more instantaneously nostalgic. So go see the films in big groups. Start a Sunday afternoon movie crew or go to a midnight showing. Again, if you want to enjoy something, you need to change the process by which you enjoy it to make it bigger, more memorable, and more full of social interactions with other fans.

So, next time you go to the movies, see if you can bring back some of the magic from your childhood.  Try a new genre of movie, talk about it with your friends after, or just put a little more effort into really enjoying the experience.  You may not be a child any more, but with these tips in mind, you just might be able to enjoy the movies like one.

 

~ Troy Campbell ~

Why are vegetarians so annoying? A teetotaling non-vegetarian responds.

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The pink elephant in the room. Pun by Nina Strohminger and illustration by M. R. Trower

Like my labmate, Matt, I’m pretty open in the first “getting to know you” conversations. I’ll freely offer up information about my career, hobbies, reality TV preferences, even my sexuality (for the record, my answer to all four questions is “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”). But there is one topic I avoid discussing for as long as I can get away with—I don’t drink.

After the big reveal, the inquest begins. No, I don’t drink at all. I do not enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a snifter of port at Christmas. I’ve never been drunk. I don’t know if I like the taste of alcohol. I’m not a recovering alcoholic, and alcoholism doesn’t run in the family. I don’t use any drug for recreation. It doesn’t have anything to do with health, and it’s certainly not a moral objection. Whatever you do, please don’t call me “straight edge” (a crypto-religious and painfully uncool musical subculture whose puritanical sanctimony represents no minor threat to my patience).

My inquisitors want a satisfying answer to the question ‘why’, but alas, none exists. Mine is less a deliberate choice than it is a preference (if it helps, think of me as gay, but for not drinking). In terms of overall utility, it’s not at all clear this preference leaves me better off. It makes me an awkward installment on dates, at parties, at pretty much every social gathering. It also raises the threshold of tolerability for such events considerably. It was a particularly absurd and socially suicidal eccentricity in college. I’ll admit, though, to having developed a sort of taste for the look of consternation on collegiate faces when boys discovered that their red plastic cups were useless against me.

But it’s not just would-be suitors who have expressed deep concern and alarm over my recalcitrant sobriety. Lurking beneath the curiosity of strangers is an unmistakable defensiveness. I am careful not to flaunt my club soda, but the very act of abstaining is seen as an indictment. This is because most of the reasons to be a teetotaler—like most of the reasons to be a vegan or vegetarian—are rooted in some form of moral concern. Drunkenness is not exactly associated with responsible decision-making. Meat consumption contributes towards such minor piffling matters as animal suffering, environmental destruction, and global injustice. Even health-based reasons carry with them a sort of moral weight, for the body is a temple, and self-control a virtue. The devil is in the sizzle of every delicious steak and the buzz of every flavorless PBR.

What makes the moral minority irritating is not that they hold exotic moral beliefs. Quite the opposite: most everyone feels the force of the arguments against eating meat or drinking alcohol. If our conscience were not pricked even a little, we would not feel implicitly judged. This explains why only certain idiosyncrasies provoke the inquisition. No one gives me a hard time about not drinking coffee, because (Mormonism aside) there is no commonly understood moral position against indulging a caffeine habit.

Everybody enjoys a good irony, and in my case that takes the form of having subjected many vegetarians to my own tedious ruminations over the years (while I could easily do without bacon, it is difficult to imagine a lifetime without cheese). But take heart! This windbaggery is actually a form of soul-searching. Whether flesh-eater or liquor-imbiber, it comes from the same vulnerable place: the desire to be—or at least be seen as—a good person.
~by Nina Strohminger~