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Study: You’ll Be Happier Throwing Out That Bucket List Than Chasing It

In my motley career I have had long conversations with heads of state and Nobel Prize winners. I have hiked north of the Arctic Circle and watched humpback whales amble by while snorkeling in the tropics. I’ve published a book and watched the birth of my son. And it has not escaped my notice that compared to these (and other) peak experiences, most of my days are rather mousy and glum, when not twisted in anxieties as cutting as they are trivial. Such is life, as many have noted (here’s just one fine example of the sentiment). So of course we chase adventure, excitement and glamor. They’re a bulwark against sadness. Right? Wrong, says this paper. The emotional cost of such adventures is greater than their rewards, write the authors. Peak experiences will make you feel worse in the long run than you would have if you had stayed home.

The kind of peak experience that interests the buzz-killing authors (Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, whose paper will appear soon in the journal Psychological Science) is the kind that is rare: going into orbit, for example, or dining with the President. (They thus excuse themselves from addressing peak experiences that aren’t rare, like the birth of a child, about which more later.) If you’ve spent time in orbit, for instance, you are unlike almost everyone else on earth, and the object of envy for millions of people. And, Cooney et al. write, “being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity.” You say you don’t care about being popular? Cooney et al. decided to see if that was really true.

Unable to take their undergraduate volunteers to the Clooney wedding or into orbit or into the Titanic, the authors simulated a “peak experience” as best they could. They had people watch short videos.

Each watching session involved 4 participants. They were told they’d be experiencing one of two videos, one highly rated and the other not so great. Before the experiment, each person answered the question “how do you feel right now?” by marking where s/he felt on a 100 point scale from “not very good” to “very good.” Then s/he sat alone in a cubicle and watched a video. One of the four would get the fun video (an engaging scene in which a street magician entertains a happy crowd) ; the other three got the meh one (some low-budget animation).

Afterwards, the four were brought back together for a brief conversation at a table near their cubicles. Then each went back to the cubicle and answered some more questions: “how do you feel right now?” (again); and “In general, how did you feel during the interaction that took place?”; and how excluded did you feel during the conversation with the others? The experiment put 17 of these four-member panels through the process.

Who felt worse after their conversation with the others in their group? It turned out to be the people who’d had the better video (on the 100-point scale, their answer to “how do you feel right now?” averaged 53.26, where the blah-video-viewers averaged at 64.37). Moreover, the “lucky” viewers felt far more excluded (average just over 80 on the 100-point scale, versus 51 for the “ordinary experiencers”). A statistical analysis of the before and after results stongly suggests that the feeling of exclusion was in fact the reason those people felt worse.

In a second experiment, Cooney et al. repeated the procedure but also asked their volunteers to predict ahead of time how they would feel. People expected to feel better if they got the superior video, both before and after the conversation with others. In other words, people had unrealistic expectations: They didn’t understand that they’d feel worse after having the better experience. Finally, a third experiment asked volunteers to make predictions about how others would feel. (The idea was to eliminate the possibility that people are realistic in general but delusional about themselves—”the general rule is disappointment but I will be the exception.”) Again, they found the same pattern of false expectation. Their volunteers expected that having a better experience would leave the lucky people feeling better than the peons who had to watch the dull video. But the reality was that, again, those who had had the “better” experience felt worse, after their conversation with others.

In all three experiments, it seems, the volunteers were subject to the same delusion that Cass Sunstein describes in this amusing column about bragging. When we brag, according to this paper, which Sunstein quotes, we fail to anticipate that other people will not share our emotions. Similarly, the people in Cooney et al.’s study didn’t anticipate that people who didn’t share their experience would feel differently about it—and then leave them out in the cold because of that difference.

The point here, Cooney et al. say, is that there is a tension between two kinds of rush. One kind —”the cool tingle of Dom Pérignon or the hot snarl of a new Maserati”—is fun in and of itself (at least until we get used to it, as we quickly do). The other sort of pleasure (like, I’d say, attending a wedding, watching sports, throwing a dinner party) is inherently social. The whole point of doing it is doing it with others.

The quest for the first kind of experience demands that you do something few others have ever done; the other demands that you be like everyone else. If you’ve kayaked all the way around Iceland you really don’t want Carnival Lines setting up stations everywhere so that any nincompoop can do it. On the other hand, at your high school graduation you are devoutly hoping for an experience that is much like everyone else’s. By failing to distinguish between these two types of pleasure, we mistakenly think that the first type of experience is the same as the second. And we’ll be surprised when people who haven’t driven the Maserati make us feel bad about that experience.

A couple of caveats need to be caveated here. The first is that watching a neat video (versus watching a dull one) is really not the same contrast as going into orbit (versus riding the F train to your office). The authors neatly finesse this by writing “experiences need not be all that extraordinary to have unfortunate consequence” that they describe. OK, but it may be that the impact of a really extraordinary experience on the peasants is more positive. Yes, if you tell your inane story about meeting Harrison Ford, I’ll be annoyed. But if you tell me you have been in orbit around the Earth, I am more inclined to ask about what that was like than I am to hate you. I think. Maybe. Moreover, many peaks of experience don’t involve the sort of recreational fooling around that the authors describe. We ordinary lunkheads may well resent someone who has gone into orbit as a lark. I doubt we’d feel that way about a professional astronaut and her adventures.

Secondly, I wonder about the way the authors have neatly separated peak experiences from social ones, and insisted that “peak” means “rare.” I don’t know about you, but it seems to me many of my life’s most amazing experiences were amazing because they happened to me, not because they were objectively rare. The birth of my son tops my list, which would also include getting married, surviving a potentially fatal accident, winning some competitions, and assorted other adventures. Even the social events on this list had an intensely personal, just-for-me aspect. Being the point of the wedding is not the same as being a guest at the wedding. Even lying around in the park with a girlfriend or boyfriend is a tremendous peak experience if you happen to be 14.

How do these common-for-the-population-but-special-for-the-individual events fit into the researchers’ taxonomy? At first blush you would think they fall into the “mundane and social” category, but they don’t—some (like childbirth) are not social events, and others (like a wedding or graduation) are mundane only to those outside the experience. True, we tend to get surly if we hear that someone has tried to make a mundane event into a super-rare one (didn’t you cringe when you heard Jay-Z and Beyoncé had taken over an entire hospital floor for one newborn?). But there’s still an unexplored realm, it seems to me, of experiences that are both ordinary (for the population) but peak (for the individual).

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In any event, these experiments do seem to offer an explanation for a common and seemingly inexplicable fact: Much of what people post on social networks is extremely banal. Why do people flood Facebook with pictures of dinner, cats, kids, neighbors? Why don’t they save social media for announcements that they’re running for Congress or are spending October at the summit of Mount McKinley or something? Perhaps they have an instinctive feel for the contrast that Cooney et al. have explored here—a social hunch that says it’s better to talk up the kind of day we all share rather than the kind the rest of us can never hope to see.

Cooney, G., Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2014). The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614551372

Illustration: God speaks to Moses through a burning bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, via Wikimedia. About Moses’ next day, occupied with the usual problems of headgear maintenance and missing sheep, the scriptures are silent.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby


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