One curiosity experiment had two set-ups. In the first set-up, researchers told study participants that only humans and certain whales experience menopause. In the second, the researchers asked which animals the participants thought were affected by menopause, prompting the participants to think before receiving the answer. The people in the latter situation reported higher levels of satisfaction, apparently happiest when curiosity was stoked and soon resolved.
Hsee says he applies this finding in his teaching by asking students questions and giving them time to ponder before supplying answers. Children also benefit from learning to appreciate the power of curiosity, he says, suggesting individuals can put this finding to work for them, for example by reading questions about art before visiting a museum, or by reading questions about a new city before heading there. In this way, hedonomics teaches, tourists can extract happiness from a vacation to, say, Paris without having to visit more cities.
Limit your choices
According to traditional economic theory, more choices are always preferable to less. A person faced with too many choices can always turn down the ones she doesn’t want. But this is a hot topic in decision-making research, as behavioral scientists have established that sometimes people prefer fewer choices. And hedonomics indicates that more choices may lower happiness and rev up the hedonic treadmill.
London Business School’s Simona Botti and Hsee ran a series of experi-ments in which they offered a number of people in a group more choices, some fewer, and some the chance to state which option they’d prefer. For example, in one experiment, they had people imagine having $10,000 to invest in a certificate of deposit and asked them to find the best CD available to them, any of which would pay between 3.01 percent and 4 percent. One group paid $7 for one set of three randomly generated options. A second group did the same, but was also given the option of spending another $7 for three more options, and so on, in a bid to find the best interest rate. A third group heard about both options, and then said which they’d prefer and predicted which would generate the best return.
The group told of both options preferred the freedom to have more choices, which they predicted would generate a better return. But in fact, people with more choices oversearched and ultimately earned less than people whose choices were restricted. There was a clear cost for more choice, $7, but people undervalued it. And the researchers find the same pattern in other experiments.
The amount of time people spend making purchasing decisions may lead to “faulty decisions and undesirable outcomes,” Botti and Hsee conclude. More choices led to worse outcomes, and by extension, to lower happiness. When it comes to choice—as industrial designer Peter Behrens said, and his protégé architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe often repeated—less is more.
Lessons for policy makers
The findings from hedonomics will have increasing importance as countries around the globe get richer. In many developing countries, the middle class is growing, which means millions more people will find themselves choosing between different types of televisions and countertops—and wines, purses, and jewelry—and looking for happiness in this newly acquired stuff.
In the US and other developed countries, where the middle class is shrinking, the lessons of hedonomics could be helpful for policy makers planning for demographic and workforce changes, Hsee says. The baby boom generation is aging out of the workforce, and up to half of today’s jobs may be automated in coming decades, according to a 2016 White House study. This transformation could leave a lot of people searching for work that might not exist, making potentially millions of people idle. Some economists, as well as business leaders, have expressed support for the idea of giving people a universal basic income—guaranteeing income of a certain amount to people who may find themselves unemployed and unemployable.
In a strict sense, this may not seem like a problem that can be addressed by hedonomics, which is about extracting the most happiness from a set amount of resources. A universal basic income could make people happier by making sure they can meet their basic needs.
But Hsee sees large numbers of idle people as a problem with political and social consequences—and essentially another problem that involves getting more happiness from one set of blocks. “You can make idle people happy by giving them a reason to ‘play with the existing blocks’ without accumulating more blocks,” he says, proposing the government consider programs that give people tasks to do, not unlike the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era, which put people who were unemployed after the Great Depression back to work. Governments, he says, may need to find ways to engage people with activities.
Whatever the policy implications may be, and whatever form they could take, the research confirms the homespun wisdom that more money doesn’t necessarily buy more happiness. Instead, Hsee says, cherish what you have and make the best use of it.