The Examined Life

I was listening to an interview about the relationship between what people buy and how happy they are. What caught my attention was that the psychologist interviewed, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, says buying experiences makes us happier than buying stuff. She also discusses a number of other characteristics of how people buy things and how that succeeds or fails to increase their happiness.

On hearing this, I thought (as you might), “I don’t need to buy happy-making experiences—or happy-making stuff, for that matter.” I thought, “This sounds suspiciously like science in service to marketing departments, which is about the buying part not the happiness part.” I also thought, “In fact, buying is incidental to (and perhaps even antithetical to) happiness.”

What does this have to do with health? Everything. Health is the capacity for a fulfilling life. “Happiness” is how researchers identify that fulfillment. And by the way, measures of happiness are associated with health using the narrow measure of health as the absence of disease. So “happiness” is close enough for me.

So I looked up Dr. Dunn’s work and read it with interest. It turns out that she and her colleagues are principally interested in educating people about what, in their view, will bring them greater happiness. They do this by explaining eight principles and discuss the research upon which the principles are based.

I won’t recite the principles because I’d have to unpack them in order to make sense of them. I also won’t recite them because they are stated in terms of buying and selling. What that framework fails at is distinguishing a means to a happy-making thing and the happy-making thing itself. In other words, how you get the experience or stuff that makes you happy is not the same as the experience or stuff itself, although the two can be intertwined in often perverse ways. Dr. Dunn and her colleagues have done the sensible thing and placed the process in what appears to them (and most everybody else) to be (and for all practical purposes is) the dominant mode by which human beings in industrial cultures meet their needs and desires—that is, through the purchase of commodities.

What I want to do is take this opportunity to look at their work outside the cash nexus of the market and commodity production. For me, four principal characteristics emerge.

The first characteristic is that what makes people happy is other people. For example, at Harvard, first year students are sent off to one of eleven residential houses where they live for the rest of their time at school. Some houses are attractive and well-accommodated and others not so much. But the community of people with whom a student lives far outweighs the accommodations in affecting student happiness. As another example, a movie website provides information about movies as well as how other people rate those movies. The ratings are much better at predicting how someone will like a movie. And yet another example I’ve discussed before: doing things for other people makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.

The second characteristic is the role our imagination plays. Our imagination makes us prone to misjudge how happy a thing will make us. It enables us to increase our happiness by savoring the prospect of a happy-making thing. It also enables us to adapt to the actual thing once it’s arrived. For example, an experiment allowed people to choose from among museum quality prints by various artists. One group was permitted to come back after a month and exchange what they’d picked for another print. For the other group, it was a done deal—no exchange. The exchange group exhibited decreasing satisfaction with their choice while the no-exchange group experienced increased satisfaction.

The third characteristic that emerges from this research is that attending to the present increases happiness. In a large experiment, people were asked to record what they were doing at a specific time, how they felt (in ways that could be measured on the happiness scale), and what they were thinking about. This experiment showed that those who were paying attention to what they were doing were happier than those whose minds were not present.

The fourth characteristic is that play makes us happy. Do I even have to explain this? One study evaluated happiness gained from nine kinds of activities. The only one that was consistently happy-making was leisure activities. Moreover, a principle element in the happiness conferred by play was the relationships with other people.

Do we have to pay for any of these? No, of course not. None of them.

But great retail minds are at work figuring out how to put this knowledge to work. In a recent New York Times article, this subject was covered in some detail. Retailers and marketing consultants are learning to adapt to a new consumption pattern elicited by the Great Recession and position commodities strategically. But their objective is to sell, not make you happy. You can do that all on your own.

The Times article opens and closes with the story of a young, middle class couple who had a two-bedroom apartment, two cars, closets full of clothes, a kitchen full of appliances, and $30,000 in debt. They downsized. The debt is gone, they live in a 400 square foot studio, and have four plates and two pots. Freed from the cash nexus, one of them spends four hours each week working for a non-profit. They’re very happy.

The title of Dr. Dunn’s research paper is “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.” Is the young couple happier because they’re spending what they have right? Because they’re spending less? I don’t think it’s either. I think they’re happy because they’ve ceased to live unexamined lives—lives that are now likely to be long, healthy ones.