The Paradox of Pleasure

Which would make you a happier person, winning the lottery or being in a car crash that leaves you paraplegic?

The answer to this apparently illogical question is, well, neither. Studies show that people who go through these radically different life experiences tend to revert, over time, to their previous level of satisfaction. Winning the lottery will send you to cloud nine for a while, but in a couple of months you’ll be back to where you started, no matter what you do with the money. Even more interestingly, ending up in a wheelchair will destroy you morale in the short run, but over the same amount of time you will again fall back to roughly the same happiness level as before the accident (psychologists call this your set point).

This rather disconcerting trait of human nature is called Hedonic Adaptation, and it was first studied in the 1970s, analyzing precisely the effects of lottery wins and debilitating accidents. Humans have an amazing ability to adjust to the hardships of life: that’s how people carry on after devastating losses and terrible misfortunes. On a more philosophical level, this also means that single life events, no matter how bad or good, do not necessarily alter our existence and might lead to very unexpected consequences. Winston Churchill, writing in his biography, remarked on this: «One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest».

This explains why people who go through terrible illnesses or other life-threatening events often sport a renewed outlook on life (think of how many times Michael J. Fox remarked that his life has been so much better since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease), but it also carries a few unwanted side-effects. It makes it really hard to find happiness, for instance: just like you get used to the bad stuff, you make quick work of the good things as well. This is the Hedonic Treadmill, a perilous exercise that takes the fitness away from your mood. Think of the last time you bought a brand new car: how long did it take before the excitement of driving it wore off? Don Draper put it best in an episode of Mad Men: «What is happiness? It’s just a moment before you need more happiness».

We’re not very good at understanding how we derive pleasure from things. For example, when you’re doing something you hate, like filling out tax forms, you’re always happy to take a break. But when you’re having a good time, you don’t want to interrupt it: nobody wants to get out of the hot tub to pick up the phone. But it turns out we’re dead wrong: separating yourself from a dreaded task makes coming back to it a lot harder, and gets you through the painful process of starting it again. But getting back to something good reignites the pleasure, leaving you with a greater overall satisfaction that cancels out the annoyance of the interruption.

It gets worse. You might think that when evaluating an experience, like a vacation, you rationally weigh all factors and take everything into account. In fact, we tend to judge experiences mostly on how they peaked and ended. This is called, not surprisingly, the peak-end rule and it’s vastly counterintuitive. To imagine this, think of taking a vacation to Hawaii for a week, in two different scenarios. In the first one, you nearly miss your flight because of traffic and, when you get to the islands, it rains for three straight days. But then a gorgeous sunshine comes out, you enjoy the remaining four days, and on the flight back you get bumped to first class for free, arriving home nice and rested. In the second scenario, you get upgraded to first class on the way to Honolulu and enjoy four days of fantastic weather, but then the rain starts. As you grudgingly step off the plane on the way back after having spent the last three days indoors, your find out that your luggage has been lost and you spend an hour filling out forms at the airline desk. Which of the two experiences do you think would leave you more satisfied?

Great psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the idea and conducted a famous study about this in the mid 1990s, focusing on the rather displeasing procedure of colonoscopy, in which a probe is inserted through the anus to inspect the bowels for tumors; the study investigated ways to increase the likelihood that a patient would accept a follow-up procedure in the future. Remembering the peak-end rule and knowing that the discomfort is felt mostly when the instrument is moving, Kahneman suggested that doctors leave it in for a few more minutes at the end, motionless, instead of immediately removing it. Patients treated this way rated the procedure as less painful, even though they had the instrument inside them for longer.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight back. How can you escape the hedonic treadmill, for instance? By buying experiences rather than objects. Research shows that spending money on transient rather than constant experiences will leave you with a much greater level of satisfaction. The memory of something you’ve done or learned can be revisited and stays with you forever, whereas the appeal of a brand new purchase soon fades away. So if you were undecided between that concert ticket and a new pair of shoes, you know what to do now. Happy memories.


The Sweet Side of Nobel Prizes

What is the best predictor of a country’s ability to produce Nobel winners? Chocolate.

Wait, what?
Yes, a study is promoting the idea that countries that consume more chocolate produce more Nobel laureates. It’s been published on a scientific journal by a New York cardiologist, who got the idea from his research into flavanols, a type of antioxidants that help keep the brain young. Since chocolate in rich in them, he tried to plot a statistical correlation between the taste for chocolate and mental prowess. Amazingly, he found it worked: Switzerland, the country with the highest per capita chocolate consumption in the world, has given birth to more Nobel laureates than anyone else. China, who has a modest appetite for it, just two. The only country that deviates from the plot is Sweden: the chocolate predictor allows for just 14 of the 28 Nobels won by Swedes. But you could dismiss that entirely on the understandable bias the Nobel committee might have toward fellow compatriots.

But wait, is this guy for real? Well, even though the study is clearly light-hearted, the numbers are sound. The linear correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes is 0.791, where 1 would be a perfect match. That’s a very high value for social factors, and it shoots up to 0.862 if you don’t take sneaky Sweden into account. (In statistics, this number is called the Pearson correlation coefficient. Another factor that measures the probability of chance mudding the results, the p-value, is even better: p<0.0001. The target threshold is p<0.05, and lower is better).

There’s more research centered around strange predictors. What can you use to estimate the level of corruption of a country? Tips. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School on data from 32 countries found that high rates of corruption and high rates of tipping (or ‘prosocial gratuities’, as they call them) go together. Why? If you consider a tip as a way to ensure good service in the future, that is similar, in a way, to a bribe. So, tipping and corruption might both stem from the same predicament and their correlation is statistically measurable (The Pearson coefficient in this study was 0.6).

One of the most fascinating statistical correlations I’ve ever encountered links rainy days to admission rates at a Canadian medical school: fewer candidates were accepted when the weather was gloomy.  We all know that weather affects how we feel, but the notion that you should try to sustain job interviews when the sun is shining takes the idea to another level. (The p-value in this study was a decent 0.042).

The real jungle of strange predictors is economy. Sales of various items are periodically linked to its health. The trend was started by Alan Greenspan in the 1970s, when he said he looked at sales of men’s underwear as an indicator of how the economy was doing.
The assumption is that refreshing your underwear lineup will not be your top priority if you have trouble making the ends meet.

In the wake of this, researchers have come up with many different ways to assess the current state of the economy. Take the Box Index, for example: it measures the production levels of cardboard boxes used to ship everyday goods like beer, toothpaste or cereal. When they plunge, it’s because sales are slow. But that’s boring, right? Much more interesting is the idea the the length of women’s skirts might be tied to how much money is going around. The New York Magazine calls it the Hot Waitress Index: the hotter the waitress, the weaker the economy. Why? Because they attract more business when the money flow decreases. Sexist all you want, but effective. There’s more very weird indicators, including the number of unclaimed corpses at the morgue (funeral services are not cheap), mosquito infestations (home foreclosures create favorable breeding grounds), and the cover of Sport Illustrated magazine. Business Insider has a list.

And since you’ve made it this far, I might as well ask you: what’s in the picture that opens this post? A chocolate fountain? Chocolate pouring from the Heavens? Nope. It’s a lamp.

It’s called the Nemo ChocoLite Lamp and it’s made by Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina. So don’t underestimate the power of chocolate on the human brain yet.