The last time I was on a date, things got awkward.
In itself, nothing new – on my best behavior, I’m unique. Loosened up by alcohol, I turn a bit weird.
It started off normal. Following my own advice, we were eating at the highest rated Italian restaurant in New York City.
I hadn’t had a single expensive meal since quitting my eat-caviar-for-free consulting job. So I ordered an orgasm-in-your-mouth quality steak.
No surprise, it was so good that I wanted to savor the experience. Several times that evening I closed my eyes, stopped paying attention to the sounds around me, and focused exclusively on my sense of taste – on the complex, absolutely delicious waves of flavor washing over my tongue. My mouth may have curled into a creepy smile.
I tried explaining what I was doing – that it wasn’t because she was boring that my eyes were closing. I don’t know if she believed me, but whatever. It was worth it.
Happiness just a hamburger away?
Economists have lots of funny ideas – theories which make sense on paper, but fail to hold up to the complexity of real life. For example, they believe that humans are perfectly rational bundles of intelligence, without emotion or evolutionary handicap. Were that true, HappierHuman wouldn’t exist.
A more subtle mistake is their belief in fixed, short-term utility – that life works like a game of sims.
If your sim is hungry, you spend 10 simoleons to purchase a hamburger. Whether eaten on Monday or on Friday, your mood bar increases by the same amount. Real life doesn’t work that way.
If on Monday a crazy women was blabbing her mouth off across the table, you’d probably be getting only a few dollars worth of burger happiness. If on Friday you were happy and in good company, you’d be getting much more value than the $10 you paid for.
What’s changed is how you’re directing your attention – on Monday the crazy women is absorbing your attention, on Friday you have more ‘free’ attention to spend focusing on enjoying your burger.
Happiness = Quality x Preference x Attention
Economists got the quality and preference parts of the equation mostly right – if you don’t like beef, you’re not going to like a burger, and if the burger is made out of cardboard, even if you’re a beef lover, you probably won’t want to eat it.
But without attention, quality and preference don’t matter at all. With attention, the impact of quality multiplies.
Happiness begets happiness in part because happy people pay more attention to the good.4 But why wait for some vestigial biological signal? Take things into your own hands.
Start paying attention.
Ever hear of mindfulness meditation and its mind blowing awesomeness? I have – I’ve been convinced for years that it’s one of the most effective paths to greater happiness.
It took me a dozen false-starts over six years to finally set the habit. Are you the same? Convinced of the benefits, but not motivated enough to wait through weeks and months of mind straining practice?
Well, there’s not much I can do for you. If you want the power to generate happiness on command, you’ve first got to meditate for a few thousand hours (more: here).
But we’ve got one advantage the Buddha didn’t have. He threw away the material world, wanting to rely only on the power of the mind to generate happiness.
But most of the modern Buddhists I know are a bit more optimistic. So am I. Rampant materialism doesn’t work, but retreating to a temple and discarding all earthly attachments? Unnecessary – an over-reaction.
So, let’s take some of Buddha’s magic and combine it with the power of money. There’s nothing mystical about mindfulness. All it means is pay attention.
Routine Lunch x Focused Attention = A Micro Moment of Bliss.
The next time you’re eating something good, take a moment to close your eyes and focus on the pleasant sensations being generated in your mouth. You can take it a step further and be grateful for 1) your tongue, 2) the food, or 3) the people who made the food. I do this every day at lunch. It makes the food taste better.
But how much of a difference can it make, really?
If something tastes good, it tastes good. If something sounds boring, it sounds boring.
When I was a senior in high-school, lots of good things happened to me – for example I got a great SAT score, got accepted to a great college, won a few prestigious competitions, and got two scholarships. But each time something good happened, I was so focused on my future that within minutes I stopped savoring and resumed scheming and dreaming.
A single bowl of cereal gives me as much happiness now as what each of those great events gave me then – that’s the difference savoring making. Best of all, savoring isn’t a yes/no, I’m not messed up like you were Amit so this isn’t relevant to me sort of thing. It’s a spectrum.
To savor is to use the power of attention to increase the intensity and length of a positive feeling.
Those who savor the most are much happier – perhaps as much as 20 to 40% more.1
Imagine getting 20 to 40% more value out of each of your purchases. Anticipating, taking delight in the details, and reminiscing can help you do that.
It’s simple – pay attention. You spent money on it. You might as well squeeze out the value you deserve.
The reason why a gratitude journal does more for happiness than winning the lottery is because it is a systematic strategy for increasing the amount that you savor – it forces you to pay more attention to the good.
Delight is in the details.
Mindful Game Playing: Every year video game graphics and music improves. How much does that increase the quality of the experience? You tell me – did you enjoy those crappy 8-bit characters you played with as a kid? I did. Like with many other things, it’s an arms race – every year standards increase and gamers come to expect more and more. Game companies buck the trend at their own risk.
Take a moment to bathe in the millions of pixels washing over your eyes every second. You’ll be rewarded with micro moments of bliss.
Mindful Music Listening: Supposedly, combining the power of attention with the power of music can treat depression.3 I’m skeptical - depression is harder to treat than that. But mindful music listening can be an intensely uplifting experience.
Sometimes I close my eyes, sometimes I go out into the sun. Always, I stop what I’m doing. Then, I just listen. Sometimes for just a few seconds, other times for a few minutes. No mental chatter, “oh, that sounds great”. No music inspired daydreaming. Just paying attention to the music. I’ve rediscovered my love for the older parts of my music collection several times using this method – the usual humdrum gets transformed into micro moments of bliss.
Mindful Sex: Well, this probably isn’t a purchase for you, but the bedroom is ripe for some attention. Considering that my family occasionally reads my blog, I’ll let someone else describe the experience: Be Here (In Bed) Now: How Mindfulness Makes for Yummy Sex.
But Mom or Dad, if you do happen to read this, I highly recommend reading the article above. It’s good stuff.
Mindful Drinking: Every sip of soda or coffee is an opportunity. The first time I had a Starbucks Caramel Brûlée Frappaccino I had a mental orgasm. Each sip gave me the chills. The rest of the day I was a bit high. I’m not exaggerating. It was worth the diarrhea (I’m sensitive to dairy and caffeine).
Anyhow, I try hard to recreate that virgin experience. The usual approach would be to increase the quantity of sugar and caffeine. But we know, because of adaption, that doesn’t work so well. What does is paying attention. A single, fully mindful sip of soda gives me the shivers. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t really matter – a little more attention = a little more pleasure, complete focus = a micro moment of bliss.
Paying attention is hard.
Those are just a few examples, but opportunities to pay attention to the good are all around us, every day. Every single purchase is an opportunity to savor, although some are easier than others.
I won’t lie. This is the hardest money secret of the entire series. It’s also the most powerful.
Double your attention, double your happiness? It’s more complicated than that. But it’s also true that most of the happiest people in the world are Buddhist monks.
You don’t have to go to a temple, study their philosophy of life, or even practice meditation. Just pay more attention to the good things in your life.
This is part four of my eleven-part series on money and happiness. Check out the rest!
Money Secret #1: Buy Many Small Pleasures
2. Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness. Focusing on food during lunch enhances lunch memory and decreases later snack intake.
3. Eckhardt, Kristen J., and Julie A. Dinsmore. “Mindful Music Listening as a Potential Treatment for Depression.” Journal of Creativity in Mental Health 7.2 (2012): 175-186.
4. Jose, P. E., Lim, B. T., & Bryant, F. B. (2012). Does savoring increase happiness? A daily diary study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 176-187.