Activity is the goods for true satisfaction By Ross Gittins February 18, 2004
Doing things, not buying stuff, has proved to be a superior pathway to pleasure in life.
A strange thing about economists is that although their ministrations exalt consumption above all things, they show remarkably little interest in it. They’re obsessed by maximising it, but utterly uninterested in studying it. They have no interest, for example, in increasing the efficiency of our consumption. It’s assumed to be satisfying and that’s it.
But I think if we’re going to live in a society so preoccupied with consumption - as we surely do - it makes sense to give attention to the efficiency of the act. And for this, we have to turn to the psychologists. They’ve become quite interested in consumption as part of their burgeoning study of happiness.
Did you know, for instance, that you’re likely to gain more satisfaction (utility, as economists call it) from buying services than from buying goods?
That’s the useful conclusion Professor Thomas Gilovich, of Cornell University, and Dr Leaf Van Boven, of the University of Colorado, come to in a paper published late last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Actually, they don’t put it quite that way. They say that “experiential” purchases - those made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience - make people happier than material purchases.
The good life, they say, is better lived by doing things than having things. They came to this conclusion after undertaking surveys and lab experiments in which they asked people how they felt about the two kinds of purchases. (And note that it applies not to poor people, but to people in developed countries with a fair bit of discretionary income; that is, you and me.)
By “experiential purchases” they mean paying to do things - going to a concert, skiing, going on a holiday, even going out to dinner. By “material purchases” they mean buying tangible objects - clothes, jewellery and all manner of “stuff”.
In a way, this is a surprising finding. When you’ve spent money on an experience, pretty soon you’ve got nothing tangible to show for it. When you buy something material, however, it lasts for years. So why should doing things be so much more satisfying than having things?
First, because experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation. When we look back on the things we’ve done, we tend to forget the minor annoyances (how hot it was, all the flies, busting to get to the toilet) and the boring bits. It takes on a rosy glow, becoming better in recall than it was in reality. We even laugh over misadventures we found most unpleasant at the time.
In contrast, one of the core findings of the happiness research is that people quickly adapt to material advances.
We soon get used to owning the new lounge suite and it becomes part of the furniture, so to speak. So we need continuous material purchases to maintain the same level of satisfaction.
Second, because experiences are more central to our personal identities. A person’s life is the sum of their experiences. The accumulation of rich experiences thus creates a richer life.
Third, because experiences have greater social value. We enjoy talking about our experiences much more than about our possessions. Talking about our experiences - including our shared experiences - is the stock in trade of our relationships with family and friends. And good relationships are strongly associated with happiness.
This finding about experiencing rather than possessing is refined by the finding of another psychologist, Professor Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, in his wonderful book, Authentic Happiness, published by Random House Australia. Seligman warns against the snare of pursuing “short cuts to pleasure”. Such as? Drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, shopping, masturbation, television and spectator sport.
The point is not that these things are necessarily bad for us, nor that we should give them up entirely. It’s that they yield only the briefest spurts of good feeling.
Every wealthy nation produces more and more of these short cuts, forms of instant pleasure that require a minimum of effort on our part.
And that’s what’s wrong with them - they’re too easy. They’re passive rather than active. We seem to have been built in such a way that things requiring more effort yield more satisfaction. It’s the old story: you get out what you put in.
Seligman tells of an academic colleague who kept an Amazonian lizard as a pet in his lab. It would eat nothing he could think of to feed it - not lettuce, mango, minced meat, swatted flies. It was starving before his eyes. One day he offered it a ham sandwich. No interest. He began reading the paper, finished the first section and allowed it to drop to the floor on top of the sandwich.
“The lizard took one look at this configuration, crept stealthily across the floor, leapt onto the newspaper, shredded it, and then gobbled up the ham sandwich,” Seligman writes. It needed to stalk and shred before it would eat. And we turn out to be a bit like that. How does Seligman know we gain so little pleasure from these short cuts?
From the findings of extensive research by the noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (which means St Michael of Csik, a town in Transylvania). St Mike gave pagers to thousands of subjects and then beeped them at random times during the day and evening. Whenever beeped they had to record what they were doing and how they felt about it. It’s from such research we learn an unsettling fact: the average mood while watching sitcoms on television is mild depression. Reading a book, however, gets a tick. It’s a lot less passive than being slumped in front of the box.
So what’s the alternative to short cuts to pleasure?
In Seligman’s schema, what lies beyond the pleasures is the gratifications, which are not feelings but activities we like doing: reading, rock climbing, dancing, good conversation, volleyball or playing bridge, for example. The gratifications absorb and engage us fully. They block consciousness of self and felt emotion, except in retrospect (“Wow, that was fun!”).
When we progress to the gratifications, however, we’re still in the foothills of satisfaction. Beyond conventional consumption in search of the good life lies the meaningful life in which we use our strengths in the service of something much larger than ourselves.