Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Happiness and Many Small Pleasures

This is the fourth in a series on happiness, based on the research covered in Sonja Lyubomirsky's book, The Myths of Happiness.  Click here to read the previous posts on Happiness and Thrift, Debt, and Experiences.

Would you rather have one big international vacation, or four domestic three-day-weekend getaways?  I asked this to my wife and my housemate yesterday, and neither of them hesitated: they wanted the big international vacation.  I do, too.  Quality over quantity, right?  But this urge to have larger, fancier, but less frequent pleasures isn't optimizing our happiness: it's doing the exact opposite.

Lyubomirsky summarizes the reason why with a quote from my favorite nutrition book, Food Rules:  "the banquet is in the first bite."  The first bit of a pleasurable experience is as good as it's going to get, and it's all diminishing returns from there.  But, if we take a break, we regain our ability to fully and repeatedly enjoy that initial pleasure.  We get more 'first bites', so to speak, by breaking up a single experience into several.  Lyubomirsky provides a fitting example: "[w]e will obtain more enjoyment from a bittersweet chocolate bar if we cut it into squares and eat one piece per day, instead of devouring the whole thing in a single sitting."

Simple enough.  But how do we apply this to our lives and finances?  Here are some ideas:
  • If you have a date night budget, as we do, don't use it on one fancy night out for the month, but rather try to spread it out to have one or two less expensive dates a week.  
  • Apply the same rationale to other limited "fun" money:  a few games in the nosebleeds instead of one game on the forty yard line, the occasional shopping splurge instead of a huge shopping spree, steaks on the grill at home every Friday instead of one night at a steakhouse.
  • If you're on vacation, consider staying at two or three different hotels in different parts of town during your stay.
  • If you watch TV shows on DVDs, don't crank through a whole season in a weekend, but watch an episode every day or two.
  • Don't skip the commercials.  Odd as it sounds, studies show that television shows are enjoyed more when viewed with commercial breaks.  The kind of interruption doesn't matter, only that there is an interruption; so feel free to do whatever you'd like during the commercials.
  • Take little breaks away from your significant other.  Nights out with the guys (or girls), or even work trips or vacations that take you away from your loved one, aren't the worst thing in the world.  The interruptions will make your time together new again: they give you more first bites!
  • For activities which are unpleasant, take the opposite tactic.  Instead of splitting up yard work or chores over several days and weekends, try to push through and finish the task in one go.
My wife did offer an interesting counterpoint to close with.  While we acknowledge that often our intuition isn't right regarding our happiness, and that many small pleasures may be optimal, that strategy more or less takes certain experiences off the table.  Are you never supposed to visit Thailand or take a year long sabbatical, for example?  When you get above a certain threshold of dollars or time, an experience is going to seem "big and infrequent" when compared to other alternatives.  Simply put, how do we take that international vacation under this strategy?

For my wife and I, there are a few things we aren't willing to chop up into smaller & more frequent pleasures.  We put aside $400 a month for travel and while we do take some smaller domestic weekend trips, the primary goal here is to travel internationally once every year or two.  We might convince ourselves to take two one-week trips instead of a single two-week trip, but neither of us are particularly interested in trading that in for a bunch of long weekends around the US.  Even if this isn't the best thing for our happiness, per se, we have goals we'd like to achieve (like seeing every continent).  I'm not sure subverting our goals in pursuit of happiness is ultimately a winning strategy.

*Cupcake photo is from lamantin at Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. I like a mixture to be honest. Like with the date night maybe you have a budget to do a small date nite once per week. I would do maybe 1-2 small one and combine the other two for a larger more expensive night. Some months maybe two nicer ones others 4 small ones. I would do the same with vacations.

    1. Good point, Thomas. You're hitting on another key driver on happiness: variety. Just as a break in between experiences can make a familiar event seem new again, something that's actually new and different has the same effect.

    2. Exactly! I always tell people when they are able to do things too easily or often they dont cherish it. That break can make a world of difference.

  2. I guess I tend to look at it in a different way. Big vacations get relived again and again, sharing stories, memories, inside jokes, etc. Weekends away are so short that they seem to blend with the minutia of everyday life and get too easily forgotten.

    1. I agree, Mrs. Pop. Big vacations are one of the things we want to keep & not split up, for the reasons you noted: you get to relive your good memories over and over. The final post on the Happiness series is on that subject.