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Can money buy happiness?

A smarter way to spend, a trip to an office focused on making you smile, and reasons to stop worrying about being happy.

Greg Mably

BUYER’S RECOURSE: Stuff will eventually disappoint you. Here’s a smarter way to spend your money.

By Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

With the stress of the holidays safely behind us, we are now finally free to enjoy them.

Wait. What?

Continue reading below

How can we enjoy the holidays more after they happen? Isn’t that the whole point of experiences: that we enjoy them in the moment? Not always. Especially if those experiences didn’t go quite as well as we’d hoped. Happiness research shows that even rather unpleasant experiences can become rosier in the kaleidoscope of memory.

Several years ago, one of us (Liz) rented an RV for a road trip. The goal: swimming in the Arctic Ocean, which, as it turns out, is really far away. After days of crossing barren landscapes, Liz spent hours at a pay phone trying to book a flight back home. She failed — and is now happily married to one of her co-travelers. The relentless quest for novel, memorable (but sometimes unpleasant) experiences may have been what spurred Roman philosopher Seneca to note: “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.”

Seneca’s argument is backed up by behavioral science. In a classic study, researchers tagged along with students on a three-week bicycle trip through California. The trip did not go smoothly. There were mosquitoes. It rained a lot. During the trip, 61 percent of the students reported feeling disappointed with it. Yet, later, only 11 percent did. “All of the complaining that I did seems so silly to me now,” one said, “because all I can remember is making a lot of great friends.”

Because experiences often elude easy comparisons, we are inoculated against pernicious feelings of regret. As researchers Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich explain, after buying, say, a wristwatch, it is all too easy to retroactively compare it with all the models you didn’t buy. “After returning from vacation, in contrast,” the authors continue, “it is not so easy to compare a hypothetical Vail ski run with the waves actually ridden in Fiji.”

This apples-and-oranges property helps to explain why people get more happiness from spending their money on experiential purchases than on material things. Satisfaction with experiential purchases tends to increase over time, while satisfaction with material purchases tends to decrease. As a respondent in one study put it, “Material possessions, they sort of become part of the background; experiences just get better with time.”

Experiences also make better gifts. Recently, University of Pennsylvania researchers surveyed 42 dads before and after Father’s Day. Dads who received experiential gifts reported feeling closer to their children.

Giving experiences may be surprisingly rewarding for givers as well. Our own research suggests that humans are predisposed to experience joy from using their resources to benefit others. In one experiment, we provided kids on the cusp of turning 2 with a pile of Toddler Gold: Goldfish crackers. We asked them to give some of the Goldfish away to a friendly monkey puppet, then coded the toddlers’ facial expressions for signs of happiness. As it turned out, toddlers looked pretty happy when they received Goldfish for themselves — but they were even happier when they got to give the treats away.

So, if you’re still in the market for a manageable New Year’s resolution, consider buying experiences rather than stuff — or perhaps best of all, buying experiences for others.

Adapted fromHappy Money: The Science of Smarter Spendingby Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

Greg Mably

HAPPINESS 101

Happiness is a bargain

Methods A Northeastern University marketing professor and her colleague observed and conducted ethnographic interviews with aficionados of thrift stores.

Results Shoppers who frequent secondhand stores enjoy both the pleasure-seeking “treat” of retail shopping along with the self-image-enhancing pleasures of frugality. Thrift shopping isn’t just about saving money, it’s about “the thrill of the hunt.”

> “Thrift Shopping: Combining Utilitarian Thrift and Hedonic Treat Benefits,” Journal of Consumer Behaviour

— Robin Abrahams

THE SMILE ENGINEERS: Inside the serious business of making everyday products a little more enjoyable.

By Michael Fitzgerald

We can’t mix business with pleasure, but what about business and fun? That’s one aim of Continuum, a design consultancy that sits in the former Dexter Shoe factory overlooking the Mass. Pike in Newton.

The 31-year-old company might not be a household name, but you know its work: Continuum helped design the One Laptop per Child computer, Reebok’s Pump sneakers, and a line of age-differentiated diapers for Pampers that helped the brand regain its market-leading position. They consult with car makers and banks, design medical devices, and recently devised a resealable, postage-paid package for recycling toothbrushes for the Waltham green-products maker Preserve.

Continuum is perhaps most famous, however, for reinventing the humble mop. On assignment from Procter & Gamble, it spent years studying how people do housework, including sending anthropologists into homes to observe the way folks deal with the drudgery of kitchen spills. It figured out that people spent as much time cleaning the mop as the floor. Thus was born the mop with the throwaway cloth, known to us as the Swiffer, which now has more than $500 million in annual sales.

Chris Michaud (left) and Kevin Young at the Continuum office in Newton.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Chris Michaud (left) and Kevin Young at the Continuum office in Newton.

All of Continuum’s projects involve taking everyday products and looking for a way to engage people’s emotions. “I love the mundane!” says Kevin Young, a managing principal at the firm. “I love things that have become accepted as the norm, where people might not think there’s a lot of room for innovation.”

A recent case in point: the iPad stand. Type those two words into Google and you’ll get 324 million results. There are pages upon pages of iPad stands for sale, ranging from the sleek to the slick to, one suspects, the barely functional. And then there are MonkeyDo and TwoHands, the stands Continuum designed for a startup called Felix.

MonkeyDo looks like a seated monkey, hands at the ready to hold a tablet, feet out to support the base. TwoHands is essentially an oversize plastic clip, with two arms that squeeze open to grab the sides of a tablet.

Both tablet holders are simple, elegant examples of how Continuum works to make the everyday fun, and both are likely to make you smile when you first see them. And if you smile, Continuum believes, that means you are emotionally engaged with the product — it becomes not just a utilitarian piece of plastic but something that makes your day just a little better.

Felix, the company that produces MonkeyDo and TwoHands, was thought up by Chris Michaud when he was Continuum’s chief operating officer. “When you’re in a consulting firm, you dream about doing it yourself,” he says. “I finally decided to give it a shot.” He transitioned into a senior fellow role, helping to train his successor, and began working to develop the first Felix products.

From the start, Michaud, now 40, focused on holders for tablets, because however much we love our devices, we usually merely endure their accessories. Michaud wanted his company to make things people truly enjoyed (“Felix” is Latin for “happy”). He and a team at Continuum — Young and a few other designers — began working up ideas.

Young, who is 44, says Continuum looks for ways to find needs that haven’t been addressed. Continuum has a series of design and fabrication shops on its lower floor where they brainstorm ideas. One day, a designer was in one of the rooms trying out different mock-ups of stands. One had two arms for the sides of the tablet and a base. The designer thought it looked like a person sitting and holding the tablet. Following his intuition, he gave it a head, then drew a monkey’s face on it. That made him laugh.

Michaud laughed, too. He took a mock-up home to his 7-year-old son, who sometimes developed neck strains from looking at the iPad in his lap. His son was so tickled with it that he grabbed the stand every time he used the iPad. “Designers find a way to create meaning, and sometimes it’s subconscious,” says Young. Monkeys like to hold things, and they are strong. (“And people just like monkeys,” he adds.)

Extensive ethnographic study went into the Swiffer, but for MonkeyDo, Young says, “I can’t tell you there was a lot of logic and research and testing here.” However, from the moment a product idea reaches the sketch stage, Michaud tests them out on dozens of people he knows, or even random strangers. While they study a product, Michaud studies them. “People should be able to look at it and do two things: They should get it, and they should smile,” he says.

Five of the rejected monkey faces and the eventual winner.

Greg Mably

Five of the rejected monkey faces and the eventual winner.

Curiously, MonkeyDo itself does not look particularly happy. “We debated a lot over whether the monkey should be smiling,” says Michaud. Continuum ginned up a number of grinning monkeys, but Michaud felt they all made the stand silly, not whimsical. Finally, designer Jung Tak said, “He’s busy holding an iPad, and it takes a lot of effort!”

All in all, Michaud looked at 24 different expressions, including a winking version and an angry version. No matter what, it was the face of the hardworking monkey that got people smiling. It seems that a serious monkey makes people happier than a happy monkey.

For an early version of TwoHands, Michaud’s test subjects got what the product did, but they didn’t seem to enjoy it. This was a problem, according to a rule of thumb Michaud has developed over the years: At least half the people who see an idea in sketch stage should smile, and three-quarters of people who see a prototype should. Tak took the prototype and drew some fingers on it, and that did the trick. Then, as they played with the design, they realized that the clasp, when closed, had something of a heart shape. “Everybody knows about putting your hands together like that to get that heart shape,” Michaud says, forming it with his hands. They worked to make sure the packaging showed off the love-evoking shape.

Two products do not a brand make, and Michaud and Young were discussing other products even as MonkeyDo and TwoHands were taking shape. Michaud knew he wanted to offer cases for tablets and phones, another market dripping with competitors. Industry tracking groups estimate consumers spent $1.35 billion on tablet accessories in 2012, and $20 billion on accessories for their smartphones.

Continuum came up with a phone case that looks like a hand, plastic “fingers” on one side of the back and a “thumb” on the other. I can’t help but smile, or perhaps smirk, when I see Michaud’s phone in its bright yellow “hand.” The case holds his phone, his driver’s license, and, slipped between the phone and the license, a few bills. That product, HandHold, launched in December alongside a series of tablet cases called Felix FlipBook and Felix FlipStand. Next up is figuring out a way to add a keyboard to the tablet cases without losing their sense of fun, a feeling most people don’t associate with keyboards.

“We’re going after things that are clever and solve problems,” Michaud says, “and make people smile.”

Michael Fitzgerald is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine.

Greg Mably

HAPPINESS 101

Don’t Worry about being happy

Methods Women who had read a (fake) news article on the psychological importance of happiness and then watched a happy film clip were less happy than people who had not read the article.

Results This study suggests that people who overvalue happiness are less likely to achieve it. Worrying about whether you are happy enough, and feeling disappointed and guilty if you are not, is an ineffective recipe for joy.

>“Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness,” Emotion

— Robin Abrahams

USE YOUR DELUSION: A neuroscientist on how cheerful people deceive themselves.

By Moshe Bar

Imagine that you could only think for very short intervals, like the character in the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron,” who was fitted with a device that broke his concentration every 20 seconds. In such a world, people with above-average smarts could not develop deep thoughts, and mental lives would remain superficial.

We are already living in such a distracted world. Some of the distraction is external and stems from the availability of electronic connectivity, which may provide short-term thrills but in the long term is a handicap for intellectual depth. (It is not clear that Leonardo da Vinci would have created the Mona Lisa had he owned an iPhone.) But there is a more profound source of distraction in our lives, which is harder to recognize because it is coming from deep inside our brain.

Human thought is broadly associative. We tend to switch from one thought to another frequently and seamlessly. In fact, research suggests our brains are wired to reward us for such associative thinking with positive mood and punish us for stagnant thinking by depressing us. So the healthy, typical thinking pattern jumps all day. That makes us creative, but it also robs us of extended stretches of thinking that could possibly take us somewhere interesting.

One way to stay put mentally is to be depressed. The hallmark of depression is a thinking pattern called rumination, a cyclical repetition that focuses on one topic, such as a rude remark from last night. It turns out that in some cognitive tasks, depressed individuals perform better than healthy participants. They seem to see reality in a more accurate manner than the non-depressed. This controversial but intriguing phenomenon is sometimes called “depressive realism.”

In one of the first experiments from which the concept has emerged, healthy and mildly depressed individuals were asked to press a button that sometimes did (and sometimes did not) seem to operate a light bulb. When asked how much control they thought they had over the light, the non-depressed participants thought they had about 75 percent control. The depressed reported that they had none, and they were right — the button was not even connected to the light.

Happy people tend to maintain a state of self-deception that includes a positive exaggeration of their view of themselves, their environment, and what will happen in the future. There are two main possible explanations for why we’ve evolved this way. One is that nature does not “want” us to dwell on the fact that we are all going to die. The other possible explanation, perhaps less bleak, is that this is nature’s way of making us productive, crafty, and exploratory. Your thinking flows forward, busy and not stagnant? Good, you will be rewarded with the neurotransmitters of better mood. Your mind is fixated on the same point for long durations? It’s depression for you.

As Joseph Conrad famously observed, action is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. By being busy and constantly moving forward in our minds and actions, we are good, productive, somewhat robotic citizens who sacrifice perception of reality in return for better mood. But occasionally resisting our natural tendency for associative thoughts and the ensuing short-term mood benefits and, instead, delving deeper into our mental world could pay off manyfold in the longer run. Try it. If you can.

Moshe Bar is director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and head of the Gonda Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Greg Mably

HAPPINESS 101

Paint some happy little trees

Methods Boston College researchers showed three groups a film clip about concentration camps. One was asked to draw a picture of their mood, one a happy picture, and one to do some unrelated task.

Results Participants who drew happy pictures were in better spirits afterward than the ones who used the art supplies to vent their sadness and anger. On Mad Men, Don Draper doodles a noose during a meeting. Look how well that’s working for him.

> “Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting,” Motivation and Emotion

— Robin Abrahams

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