Pickup location. Uh, uh, Smith oh, picked up time to thirty.
There's one car you absolutely have to rent when you go to San Francisco.
It has to be compact to four door Ford Focus or similar. I'm not really a car person.
Automatic transmission, just aircon. Yes.
My regular ride is a slightly scruffy 2011 Nissan Sentra to hear it back.
Awesome. If you can't picture that in your head, that's OK. I'm not sure anyone can.
It's kind of a dull silver color and relatively anonymous last image. We were new child seat news.
When I travel for work, I usually rent the cheapest boxes and most ordinary car on the lot.
Prepay gets no, uh, confirm rental done.
But when my producer Ryan and I arrived at the San Francisco airport last fall, we were in for a bit of a surprise. The woman at the car rental place apologized profusely. They'd run out of normal, boxy, compact cars and intermediates and full sizes. Would it be OK? She asked, if instead of the car I booked, we accepted at no extra cost a bright red Mustang convertible.
We and our amazing car took San Francisco by storm, we crossed and we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and soaked up envious glances from teenage boys at crosswalks and blasted it is synthpop on repeat the entire time instead of dull trip into the city for work.
Ryan and I had the time of our lives laughing like idiots and making memories, all because of the car.
That Mustang experience got Ryan thinking he's always kind of hated my Sentra. He wants me to get a newer, safer car, especially since my Nissan does have a few bodywork issues.
I kind of hit a huge rock. So Ryan started texting to make his case. But a Mustang, get a Mustang, get a Mustang was carried on and on and on. One text contained a single word, all caps with an exclamation point Mustang. I know Ryan only wants what's best for me, but I have a mostly working car now, and the science suggests that giving in and buying a newer, more expensive vehicle would have a surprising effect on my well-being.
It might hurt my happiness rather than help it.
Our minds are constantly telling us what to do to be happy, but what if our minds are wrong? What if our minds are lying to us, leading us away from what will really make us happy? The good news is that understanding the science of the mind can point us all back in the right direction. You're listening to the happiness lab here, Dr. Larry Santo's. I've had a lifelong fascination with the supernatural. I wrote a book about that when my first book was about why we believe in the supernatural.
This is Bruce Hood, a professor of psychology at the University of Bristol in the UK, like me. Bruce is intrigued by some of the weirder, more irrational parts of the human mind. But I didn't realise how personal that address was until I visited his house for the first time. You see, Bruce lives in a lovely converted barn in a quaint, quiet part of the English countryside. And so I was expecting the inside of his house to look rather cozy.
But that wasn't what I saw when I first opened the door. Everywhere I looked, there was blood, claws and fangs. Which is just the way Bruce likes it. I've loved horror movies and that sort of genre from a very early age, I became obsessional about buying vintage movie posters with werewolves and vampires and all that sort of thing.
Bruce was able to actualize his childhood horror obsession once he finally got a professor level salary. That was when he discovered the miracle of online auctions.
I have over 100 posters now and there's no way I don't think anyone's going to hospital unless you're very wealthy. I've got a house that you can easily accommodate them all. So a lot of them, I'm afraid, are just stored away. But I have for most of them as many as I can. And they're all over the walls.
You have over a hundred of these? I have over 100. Yeah. And they're like a metre by two metres big. So they're not little things, they're big posters.
Why would anyone buy a more movie posters than they could possibly display? Bruce realised that it wasn't really the posters he loved so much.
It was the pursuit I would search on eBay and you can see the bidding line and you could offer a bid and then you see someone's outbid you and then you get frustrated. He's got a real buzz and the thrill of I got it and complete desperation and disappointment of I lost out to some other guy.
And of course, the post would turn up weeks later and it was great getting them, but nothing compared to the kind of the exhilaration of winning the auction.
That thrill we get from buying a new prize on eBay is well understood by science. It's caused by a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Whenever we buy something exciting, the reward areas of our brain release a bunch of dopamine, which not only triggers a pleasurable sensation, but also makes it more likely that we'll repeat the behaviour. Evolutionarily speaking, dopamine is there to ensure that we keep doing all the important things like eating and having sex. But nowadays, dopamine can just as easily make us chase after things that we don't really need for our survival, like, for example, more vintage horror movie posters than can actually fit in your house.
Of course, Bruce understands the science of dopamine. Knowledge is not enough.
You can know these things very objectively and yet still be a victim to the same sort of mechanisms. So at least I kind of understood what was driving it.
But I got to a point where I literally could not buy or put up anymore.
And after that I kind of started to realize, well, this this overconsumption thing, this possession thing is really interesting.
Bruce began to study the science of why we like to accumulate so much stuff. This research became the basis of his recent book Possessed Why We Want More Than We Need.
We buy for a number of reasons.
There's a whole area of evolutionary theory called signaling the poster child for signaling, of course, this is the peacock. Why does it have such a silly tail? It costs so much in terms of energy. It's not very efficient and makes them very vulnerable to attack. And yet these animals have evolved this elaborate display because it signals to potential mates that they have good genes. So rather than fighting or learning to run away or whatever, they've developed these signalling behaviours like peacocks strutting their stuff.
We humans are naturally drawn to shiny cars, fancy clothes and other status symbols. These things act as outward signs how awesome we are on the inside. And so our species really likes to accumulate stuff. So much so that we've gone beyond just filling our shelves and closets and attics and garages. We fueled a whole new growth industry, self-storage rentals.
I mean, there are more storage units than there. McDonald's, it's just ridiculously, you know, a symptom of a culture which has become obsessed with possessions. So that's why I called the book possessed, because it's like this demon that it is this little imp in our mind telling us to buy things and don't throw it away because it might be valuable one day.
But is all this purchasing really making us happier, at least beyond the initial pursuit? I mean, it doesn't really seem like it, which poses a bit of a paradox, since many scholars initially assumed that increased material wealth would lead to happiness.
The absolute paradox was identified by Richard Esslin back in the early seventies, and he noted that if you look at the gross national product of the U.S. in particular, as it's been rising, it doesn't seem to have a corresponding change in increased happiness. And said he said, that's the paradox. We should be happier. You may have heard the term retail therapy and is a sort of bit of truth in that people do enjoy the process of shopping. But just like me, my poster is that initial buzz I get from doing it doesn't last very long.
When the buzz of buying wears off, when that dopamine rush in our brain subsides, those new possessions can make us feel even sadder than we did before.
The trouble is, is that as soon as you get something with outstanding quality, it makes all your other possessions look pretty rubbish. So this is called the Dederer effect of the French philosopher.
He really wanted a dressing down and he spent a lot of money on it and he really caught it and he got it and he loved it and he looked around. Everything else looked a bit shabby. So then he realized he had to go and change everything else in this household and he started to spend more money than he had. And he realized that, you know, in the past he had control of all his possessions. But as soon as he took on board this new thing of high status, that changed.
Almost controlled him. I experienced a hint of the daedra fact when we rented that swanky Mustang. That's the valet at our hotel did look at me and Ryan a little oddly like he was surprised that the people who dropped off that kind of car had the crumpled clothes and crappy luggage that we did as we rode the elevator to our rooms.
I thought back to my beat up Nissan with a squeaky windshield wipers and sticky coffee cup holders. None of that had really bothered me when I drove it in earlier that morning. But now my own car seemed, well, pretty crappy. I mean, don't get me wrong, the Mustang was super fun to ride around in, but if it entered into my life on a more permanent basis, I might fall prey to that detro effect even more. I might wind up changing the other things in my life to fit with the fact that I now owned a swanky car.
As the name of Bruce's book suggests, my new ride might end up possessing me far more than I possessed it. The good news is that there is a way to enjoy the happiness boost that Ryan and I got from the Mustang ride without ending up on a treadmill of buying a new car every few years. And we'll talk about that science back strategy when the happiness lab returns in a moment. Marijuana, motorcycles and mayhem, deep cover is a true story.
It begins with an FBI agent going undercover in a biker gang and it ends with, well, a war, a full scale U.S. invasion.
I'm Jake Halpern. I'm a journalist. And for the story, I've been at dive bars, horse farms, backwater swamps. I've talked to FBI agents, pirate rain actors and a bunch of big time drug smugglers. Listen to deep cover now. And your favourite podcast app or deep cover pod dotcom brought to you by Pushkin Industries. So maybe they make us happy for a little while, but over time we just stop deriving as much satisfaction from them.
I wanted to find some evidence based strategies to help me decide about this car situation. And so I decided to call a world expert on happier purchasing, Amit Kumar.
I'm an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
IMiDs studies the way our minds mis predict the pleasure we get from what we buy. And so I told him about my car dilemma. Based on his research, he predicted that any happiness boost I drive from buying that Mustang wouldn't last much longer than the new car smell. If you've listen to other episodes of The Happiness Lab, you might know the reason why a phenomenon that psychologists have christened hedonic adaptation. We just get used to stuff far quicker than we think.
What seemed kind of new and exciting at first, that excitement tends to fade. I guess the other thing is that it's always there in front of you. So when it malfunctions or if something goes wrong, you're just kind of bothered by that.
But there's a second reason that our possessions don't make us as happy as we think. That green eyed monster is always with us.
People are often kind of peeved when they find out that someone else has a nicer TV than they do or if they have a fancier wardrobe. It can be similarly annoying to find out that someone who has the same thing that you do like the same gadget that you have or something like that, paid substantially less for it. So these sorts of destructive comparisons can stand in the way of happiness.
So if I caved in and splurged on a new car, not only would every scratch and that make me sadder, but I'd also unwittingly enter an arms race with my friends and neighbors, comparing my purchase to whatever car they had in their driveways. And even a new Mustang would look crappy next to my colleagues, brand new Tesla.
But its research shows that there is an alternative kind of purchase we can make that can bring us some lasting joy.
Money could make us happier if we made different decisions or choices with what we did with it.
To get the most happiness bang for our buck, we should make purchases that are experiential rather than material.
So experiential purchases are essentially something that you spend money on. That's an event or a series of events that you live through. So basically it's money that you spend on doing things like travel, vacations, dining out, going to concerts, sporting events.
If you're anything like me, you might feel a bit bad about spending more of your money on meals and trips can feel a little frivolous.
So in some sense they might seem fleeting. But in a way this is actually a benefit of experiences compared to possessions. So people do tend to habituate to get used to things and derive less value from them over time with an experience that's already over. That doesn't seem to happen.
But experiences don't just make us feel better after we finish them. Experiential purchases can also make us happier than material possessions even before we get to enjoy them.
One thing that's interesting about waiting is that waiting can also sometimes feel good. So when it comes to material possessions, it feels more like impatience or anxiety or frustration. But with respect to experiential purchases is just a more positive state. We tend to look forward to what's to come with great excitement and delight. We look at restaurant menus and we go through our travel plans in advance. That tends to feel good instead of bad.
But Obama has found that the biggest reason experiences bring us more joy is that they aren't normally a solitary activity.
So if your purchases are promoting social interaction, if you're talking about the things that you've done or if you're doing them with other people, that's one reason they're going to make you happier than some material items that you might buy.
And experiential purchases don't just keep us social while we're doing them. They also let us connect with people afterwards, too.
So if you go on a vacation somewhere, there's all sorts of things that you can talk about, what you did, what you saw, who you were with, what you ate. There's just lots of directions to go. It's a bit harder with material goods and sharing stories about things you've done.
We're just reliving the memories. Also has another happiness boosting effect.
It turns out that sort of generally speaking, reflecting on experiential purchases inspires more gratitude than reflecting on material purchases. So people are more grateful for what they've done than for what they have. Part of the reason that this is particularly interesting is because of what gratitude tends to predict. So researchers have found that feeling grateful is associated with a whole host of positive outcomes. So in some fun studies we've done, for instance, we found that when people think about their experiences rather than possessions they've bought, they end up being more generous to others.
They end up treating other people better as a result of reflecting on their experience purchases.
All this goes to say experiences, be they big or small. They be material purchases on literally every happiness metric study. And yet we still can't seem to break our habit of filling our closets and attics and garages with so much stuff. So after the break, I'll introduce you to a person who's taken this research to heart, someone who became so weighed down by her possessions that she decided to get rid of nearly all of them and became a lot happier as a result.
If I'm really honest, if I didn't love it or use it, it was gone. The Happiness Lab. We'll be right back. Hey there, I'm Ashleigh Ford, host of the Chronicles of Now podcast Chronicles of Now commissions, amazing authors like Roxane Gay, Colum McCann, Carmen Maria Machado and Curtis Sittenfeld to write short fiction inspired by the headlines.
Each episode features a new work of fiction inspired by the biggest stories of our time, like what does covid-19 do to our relationships? How do we make sense of climate change and extinction? And perhaps most mysteriously, what is going on with Trump's tweets?
Because in such uncertain times, sometimes art fiction is the only way to make sense of it all.
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In some ways, I'm like, who was she, who was old school, Kate? I would say that I was someone who basically spent every penny that I earned.
I caught up with author and blogger Kate Flanders via Zoom In her bedroom. Sounds a little echoey. It's because there's virtually nothing in it. But it wasn't always like that. I definitely bought things whenever I wasn't feeling great. But then when you fill your home with stuff that you don't even use, it actually also feels worse. I would always text my best friend Emma and tell her whatever silly thing I was thinking of buying Emma. I think I need all new bedding sheets like.
But do you do you need any?
And I would just have this idea in my head that somehow that was the thing that was going to fix me that day. Like if I somehow made my bedroom look different or or whatever, that that was somehow going to fix whatever was going on.
Kate's material purchases followed a pattern that's familiar to many of us. She bought things in the hope that they would make her a better, more interesting person. She filled her small apartment with unread books and clothes and then added, Kamras paints brushes and other art supplies.
I purchased things thinking I would like to be the kind of person who does X, Y or Z, but I never ended up doing any of it at the time.
K wasn't all that bothered by her shopping habits, but she did want to fix her financial situation by spending way more than she earned. She'd run up over thirty thousand dollars in debt.
I decided that for a year I just wouldn't buy anything unless it was absolutely essential. The things I could buy were groceries or put gas in my car. If I needed it, it had to be essential. Otherwise it just was off the list.
Keets shopping ban was just supposed to reduce her debt, but it ended up teaching her a lot more about happiness than she expected. As the flow of books and clothes and a gazillion other material purchases was cut off, he started to realise just how cluttered her life had been.
I was kind of sick of my drawers always being full or my closet being full, like I've always been someone who only wears the same two or three outfits. So why don't I have a closet full of clothes or a dresser full of clothes? It just didn't really make sense. And so I think as I started cluttering, especially because I was really aggressive in the beginning, I got rid of something like 50 percent of my stuff in the first six months.
And I, I do remember after that just noticing, like when I walked into a room, not only did it feel like lighter is a good word for it, but it also actually just felt more inviting.
Cate's year long shopping ban and radical de cluttering made her realize that she didn't need as many material things as she thought. Her project also led to a new book, The Year of Less How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store. She had always wanted to become a professional writer for her financial situation made that impossible. Having learned to live with less stuff, she finally got the freedom she needed to dive into her dream career.
Her newfound savings also gave her the funds she needed for something else the opportunity to experience the wider world.
I didn't travel as a kid. We didn't do that. But I always wanted to, like I knew by the time I was a teenager that that was something I was interested in. I felt like I sort of started slow. I would book three nights away with a friend somewhere, went away to a wedding to a friend that like I never would have been able to afford to go to her wedding.
Since Kate can write from anywhere in the world, she decided to continue traveling. She gave up her apartment and now spends her time visiting friends and experiencing new countries and cultures.
Traveling made sense to me like it. It made me feel more like myself than anything else.
And just as it's work would suggest, these new experiential purchases have given far more joyful memories than any of her old material things.
I don't remember the majority of what I did cluttered and got rid of, and even just being able to recall things like the hotel that I stayed up for my friend's wedding or the house party that I went to with her and her friends, like the people I met in the conversations that we had. And I think I had never really stopped to savor moments like that before. Like really I can remember the experiences because of how I felt or how the air smelled in certain cities.
And I mean, I don't remember anything like that of what I did or even what I've purchased in the past.
When she's not traveling, she uses a single room at her dad's house as her base camp. That was where she met me over Zoome. It was pretty Spartan.
One of the things that's cool about doing this interview is I'm able on Zoom to look into your room and I see like coatrack with the hat and a coat, but maybe a chair. But like, that's it.
Yes, I have a painting. I know. Yes, I see the painting. It's a lovely painting, actually.
It's done by a friend of mine. So, yeah, it was nice to hang that up recently.
Kate has around 40 items of clothing like not including socks and underwear and a few pairs of shoes, hiking boots, kind of regular boots, running shoes and sandals, and that's it.
Having once been possessed by her material purchases, Kate has now broken free. Now, the few things Kate does have all serve a purpose or have an important meaning.
One of the things that I kept was my desk, and that's because I built it with my dad. You just have more. Appreciation in general for the things I think that you understand where they came from and also seems like you're keeping material objects that also have this this feature of they were experiences for you, they were memories for you to write like the desk is a memory that you have with your dad. And so it winds a totally special in that sense.
That is something I can't really imagine I would ever get rid of.
Kate's on to something really important here. The material possessions we do love are usually imbued with a certain experiential joy. It got me thinking back to what Amit Kumar had explained when we chatted before.
There's this sort of fuzzy boundary between what's an experience and what's a possession. Take a bicycle, for example. That's something that you keep in your possession. But it's literally a vehicle for experiences. If you think about it in terms of its features, its sort of specifications, it's going to feel a little more possession and it can lead to some of these problems with comparison, for instance, that we've talked about. But if you think about going out on the trails, then all of a sudden that particular purchase might be something that inspires more happiness within you as a result of construing it in terms of its experiential nature.
After talking with Kate and Armitt, I'm more convinced than ever that I don't need a new car. I also realized that I can think of my beat up Nissan in a different light. I can construe it as a giver of new experiences, one that can connect me socially with the people I really care about.
And so do your podcast listener, welcome Inside My Beat Son, which has recently become less beat up than it used to be since I did, in fact take Ryan Sage advice and made some strategic auto body repairs. Thanks, Ryan. Making this episode has given me some real gratitude for these old wheels, and it's helped me reframe how I think about my car. Generally, this Nissan is going to be my doorway to new experiences. It's going to be the car that takes me for nice meals with my husband on trips to see my old friends.
And with all that money I'll save from not buying a Mustang. And hopefully I can invest in even more fun experiential purchases in the future. I can pay for a cool new yoga class online and enjoy the anticipation of a fantastic future vacation, hopefully one that will involve traveling somewhere warm and sunny and maybe, just maybe a small rental car splurge, too, because I might enjoy just a little more muscle car fun sometime soon.
The Happiness Lab is Coreign and produced by Ryan Dilli, our original music was composed by Zachary Silver with additional scoring, mixing and mastering by Evan Viola Penha and also help with production. Joseph Fridmann check our thoughts and our editing was done by Sophie Krein McKibbon special thanks to McLibel, Kali Migliore, Heather Fain, Julia Barton, Maggie Taylor, Maya Canik, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr.