Archive for June, 2017

Research Summaries: Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences

Today’s research summary comes from another article in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Oxygen toxicity occurs when the lungs take in ...

Oxygen toxicity occurs when the lungs take in a higher than normal O 2 partial pressure, which can occur in deep scuba diving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big ideas:

  1. It is well established that experiential purchases (like going on a vacation) lead to greater happiness than material purchases (like buying a car). However, not much is known about which types of experiences lead to greater happiness and for whom.
  2. A dimension on which experiences reliably differ are whether they are ordinary, meaning common and frequent, or extraordinary, meaning infrequent and rare. For e.g., sipping a cup of coffee, may be an ordinary experience, while scuba diving on an an exotic vacation may be an extraordinary experience. Both types of experiences have the potential to increase happiness.
  3. A dimension on which people differ is their perceived time left, that is correlated with their chronological age. A young person believes that they have a lot of life ahead of them and are future oriented, while an older person believes that time is limited and its more prudent to focus on the here and now. The perceived time left can be manipulated in the laboratory (as the authors do in one of the studies) or it may vary naturally, for example a person suffering from cancer may have a limited perceived time left.
  4. The authors hypothesized that experiences lead to happiness, because they are in a a way processes used by people to define their self, and having a healthy and cherished self-concept leads to happiness and well-being. Extraordinary experiences are a sort of experiential CV of a person that highlight that their experiential (and emotional) high points.  Ordinary experiences are a sort of commonplace activities that define who you are and how you live your life.
  5. They also hypothesized that (psychologically) young people should be more obsessed with building their experiential CV and thus derive more happiness from extraordinary experiences as compared to ordinary experiences; (psychologically) older people, on the other hand, should derive greater happiness from ordinary experiences as compared to younger people, as they have a stable sense of self and self-concordant ordinary activities.
  6. What they found was that indeed, for younger people, extraordinary experiences are associated with greater happiness as compared to ordinary experiences. For older people, however, both extraordinary experiences and ordinary experiences carry the same happiness dividend, which is of the same magnitude as that received by younger people undergoing extraordinary experiences. Thus, while extraordinary experiences are associated with high levels of happiness throughout the age span, ordinary experiences start small and peak at life’s end.
  7. This has important implications for brands targeting experiential products to consumers. Brands targeted at youth are more likely to succeed if they associate themselves with extraordinary experiences; however brands targeted at older people can succeed more by associating themselves with everyday ordinary experiences.
  8. Beyond brands, this highlights which sort of experiences may be more crucial to have at different stages of life for optimizing happiness. If you are older perhaps savoring is the way to go. If you are younger perhaps more risk-taking, adventurous and seize-the-day sort of activities are to be prioritized.
  9. This can also be related to my last research summary on costs and benefits of consuming. The extraordinary and ordinary experiences are related to what Mihaly called experiential needs- it is instructive to note that they arise from a  self-definition process and are likely just another form of either satisfying the need for self-esteem or self-actualization: that is this is who I am and these are experiences that validate it.
  10. A few notes about methodology. The authors performed eight studies in total. In most of them, they asked participants to recall a recent extraordinary or ordinary experience (in one study they used the last Facebook status update ), and then asked the participants to rate the experience on different dimensions like amount of happiness felt etc.  The methodology is not without its own challenges and limitations and as the results are mostly correlational, should be interpreted with caution.

So what is the final takeaway? Prioritize experiences over material purchases,  and even among them prioritize rare experiences when young and more common everyday experiences when old. If your interest has been piqued, check the original article here.

Research Summaries: Costs and Benefits of Consuming

I am toying around with a new idea of providing research summaries for a few select articles that I read and find interesting. Do let me know if you find them useful. The idea is that one could read the research summary to get a good idea about the paper and then decide to dig deeper into the original source if one’s interest has been piqued sufficiently. The research summaries would be short and neither a substitute for the original article nor a copy n paste of the abstract.

So here is the first of the research summaries. The paper is Costs and Benefits of Consuming by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and you can read it here.

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mi...

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big ideas:

  1. Most consumer behavior, like eating a steak, creates some entropy in the world. The world moves from more organization (energy captured in creating and processing steak) to less organization (waste products after the steak has been digested). This entropy increase is directed at, and matched by, fulfillment of the needs of the consumer. However the energy/entropy gained by consumer, by satisfaction of needs, is typically less than the energy/entropy lost by objects of consumption; hence the need to assess and balance the costs and benefits of consumption.
  2. If the entire world consumed at levels of that found in US/ Western Europe, it will take two more earth sized planets to fulfill those energy needs; hence the importance of the issue at hand.
  3. Consumer needs can be classified into two buckets: those that are existential in nature and arise from basic needs common to all humans, which need to be fulfilled; and experiential needs which are related to ‘killing of time’ or filling the void of doing nothing, by consuming and thus focusing consciousness on something external.
  4. Existential needs can be further broken up based on Mas low’s hierarchy of needs. While survival and safety needs may be essential for proper functioning and thus justified; love and belonging needs of ‘keeping up with Joneses’ or self-esteem needs satisfied by having material possessions like a Ferrari car are more questionable. Self-actualization needs, by emphasizing growth and mastery, may not lead to much consumer behavior.
  5. Experiential needs arise form a need to keep consciousness focused on a goal directed activity; around 30 % of the time , college teens spend time in a zone where they have ‘nothing to do’. Rumination, and depression/ despair can set in if the consciousness turns inwards and cannot find a suitable external goal to focus on (an idea I am uncomfortable with)- consuming behavior, like shopping, may be one way out of the situation.
  6. There are many negative relations between money and happiness; one such is if you are consuming an energy rich object (like a magazine) as compared to a less-energy object (like a book) you are more likely to be happier reading a book (less energy product) than a magazine (a high energy product); there is a strong negative relation between energy consumption and happiness among women.
  7. He exhorts us to move towards an economy characterized by people consuming less and still maintaining the complexity like a chef, poet, musician etc. He also reiterates the research showing how material consumption does not lead to happiness.

Overall a pretty good morning read. I found this passage particularly resonating and beautiful:

Craftspersons, chefs, athletes, musicians, dancers, teachers, gardeners, artists, healers, poets—these are the workers creating goods that increase human well-being without degrading the complexity of the world. Is it impossible to develop an economy based on a majority of workers of this kind? Where consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the breakdown of matter? Let us hope this transition is not impossible, because otherwise the future looks grim indeed. And if the transition does come about, the Journal of Consumer Research will be filled with articles about music, art, poetry, and dance—the creative energy of the new economy.

And this passage is timely reminder indeed, and the reason I am writing this post is to disseminate widely the costs of rampant consumerism, without the corresponding hypothesized benefits:

We already know that material possessions alone do not improve the quality of life. We know that excessive concern for material goals is a sign of dissatisfaction with life. We know that trying to avoid the mental chaos of everyday life by resorting to acquisitions and passive entertainment does not work very well. Yet we insist in the vain hope that we can achieve happiness through consumption—regardless of consequences. Certainly one of the greatest services that consumer research can do for humankind is to document these realities, and diffuse them to as wide a public as possible.

Hope you liked the summary; you can read the full text here.

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