What we talk about when we talk about happiness

My lists are shrinking. Not my to-do lists, unfortunately. Rather, my lists of resolutions. I recently had the opportunity to collect all of my New Year’s resolution lists in one place and noticed a trend. Lists from a decade ago or more had upwards of three dozen items, many of which were objects — books, game consoles, music players. Recent lists, however, were only a few items long: Take more vacations. Spend more time with my family. Do more meaningful work. Exercise more, and more consistently. These were lists of experiences.

As I compare years’ worth of historical resolution lists, this difference is striking. I have a single-track mind for experiences that might make me happy over the course of a year.

The happiness experience

The prevalence of recent studies might indicate there’s a growing trend in our interest in happiness. Chances are good that if you’ve recently opened a news reader, a newspaper, or a certain bestseller, you’ve seen headlines on the state of happiness. How can we be happier? Can we design our own happiness? Is happiness a do-it-yourself pursuit? My lists may be shrinking for an entirely good reason: Investing in experiences over objects amplifies happiness. Money, as it turns out, can’t buy happiness.

See also:
Money can buy happiness (if you know how to spend it), Ingrid Fetell

As designers we spend a great deal of time considering which brands consumers consider (and even that’s a cultural distinction). Findings show that spending money on experiences over material goods leads to longer-term satisfaction, and spending money on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. In 2008, for instance, at the downturn of the economy, Wal-Mart noticed a stay-cation trend and started grouping items in its stores to transform any space into a “vacation.” No longer just selling objects like grills and tents, it was selling entire experiences — barbecue foods, inflatable pools, and outdoor furniture at a reduced price. By focusing on the larger story, it was able to focus its design and make a larger impact by creating an entire vacation rather than providing just the pieces. Assuming a consumer’s goal (vacation) was aligned with the outcome (purchase), his or her ultimate happiness had more of an opportunity to flourish.

Experiences — those that we have the potential to create opportunities for — can amplify happiness. While we can’t predict or control what people will or won’t do, we can create potential.

Peaks and stories

When we design the potential for happy experiences, are we certain it’s happiness? Have our users asked to be happy? Adam Phillips suggests what we truly want is to feel frustrated, and happiness is a preemptive strike against frustration. It’s more of a refuge than a transformation.

Even if the entire experience isn’t a good one, people may not remember it. Founder of behavioral economics and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s research reports on the “peak-end” rule, which shows what we remember about the pleasurable quality of an experience is determined almost entirely by two things: 1. how we feel when experiences are at their peak, and 2. how we feel when experiences have ended. We rely on these two-part summaries to remind us of how we felt about experiences. The summary is the one we remember. We’re taking happiness shortcuts.

As designers it’s important to note that what matters far more is the intensity at the peak combined with how people feel at the end, rather than the overall average of the experience. In a talk, Daniel Kahneman reveals the difference between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self.” Getting confused between them is part of what’s confounding about how we invest in happiness because our “remembering self is a storyteller and that starts with the basic response of our memory. We don’t [actually] set out to tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories. That is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story”. Whatever our craft, whether it be book cover design or toothbrushes or websites, we might benefit from considering the narrative that emerges from the experience.

On being ordinary

But it’s not just peaks and stories. In his paper “On Doing ‘Being Ordinary,’” Harvey Sacks analyzed conversation to explore the mechanics of discourse. In doing so, he uncovered ordinariness is a crucial part of everyday conversation. He found what was remarkable about discourse was that it was primarily unremarkable. The very fact that things are ordinary and unremarkable allows the unordinary to stand out. Paul Dourish, in his 2003 landmark paper “What We Talk About When We Talk About Context,” cites the example, “I saw an accident on my way to the bank this morning.” Without the routine of otherwise ordinary events and conversation as a backdrop, it would not be possible to distinguish this solitary one as extraordinary. The ordinary has extraordinary value in isolating meaningful experiences.

Happiness in the wild

Mappiness, part of a research project at the London School of Economics, maps happiness across space. The researchers intend to better understand how people’s feelings are affected by features of their environment — from pollution to noise to green spaces — while they’re doing ordinary things. They hope to publish the research; meanwhile, users who download it can enter data that is charted for them hour by hour over time so that they can visually monitor their own happiness.

Whether as creators or consumers, whether you ascribe to happiness theory or the set point theory of happiness, as another year begins, don’t forget to plan a vacation, take time off — even just a day or an afternoon. You may only remember the peak-end.

But if nothing else, pause and talk about happiness, if only to consider its implications for design, or to dispute them.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVIII.1 – January / February, 2011 » What We Talk About When We Talk About Happiness