How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

What's So Great About Business Class?

Can We Adapt to Anything Positive, Including Business-Class Travel?

Business Class on Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines announced recently that it will begin flying all-business-class flights across the Pacific – Newark to Singapore started in May and Los Angeles to Singapore will start in September. The demand for business class seats is apparently enormous, so this new venture sounds like it makes perfect business sense. But the psychological scientist in me wonders whether, at the end of the day, this will prove to be such a good idea.

The reason for my hesitation is that, as growing research shows, people adapt quickly and easily to anything positive that ever happens to them. When you move into a beautiful new apartment with a view, when you obtain 20/20 vision through LASIK, when you buy a hip new hybrid, and even when you tie the knot, you get an immediate boost of happiness from the new and improved circumstances, but unfortunately the thrill only lasts for a short time. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, you find yourself taking your new apartment, eyesight, car, and marriage completely and utterly for granted.

In a theory developed with my colleague Ken Sheldon, I argue that several important factors play a role in this natural adaptation process. With apologies to the University of Virginia, their acronym is UVA: Unexpectedness, Variety, and Attention. We adapt more slowly when a positive experience, such as a job, car, or flight to Singapore, is 1) full of surprises, 2) variable, and 3) commands our attention and appreciation. The last factor is what Singapore Airlines should carefully take into account.

Here’s why. One of the primary reasons that we relish business class travel is that it makes us feel so special. This sense of privilege is enhanced when we observe the envious looks on the plebeians trudging by us on their way to their cramped and curtained-off coach-class seats. Indeed, every time we catch a glimpse of the coach section or their long line to board, we feel a burst of positive feeling – delight, contentment, self-satisfaction, and good old-fashioned pride.

What will happen when the entire flight is business class? We will lose that feeling of specialness. Even more important, we will lose the critical comparison with the “Sure, this flight is a mind-numbing 19 hours, but it could have been so much worse” alternative. Psychological scientists have reliably established that people would rather have a poorer outcome, as long as others are even worse off. For example, students prefer to have a job in which they earn $50K per year (and everyone else earns $25K) than a job in which they earn $100K per year (and everyone else earns $250K). It’s irrational, but it’s also human.

So, I wonder: Come a year’s time, will the airline end up reinstating a few rows of coach? After all, those rows would give us back the worse-off economy-class comparison, so that our attention during the flight is intermittently drawn to how much more comfort, leg room, and free cocktails we receive. In the end, it might make for more satisfied – and more loyal – customers.

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Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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