The Pleasure of Life's Uncertainties

The urge to understand events may reduce the joy we take in them. People experience greater satisfaction in not knowing how things end.

By Lauren Aaronson, published on May 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It may be that mystery, not variety, is the spice of life. According to a new study, the natural tendency of the human brain to reduce life's uncertainties also saps everyday experience of its poignancy.

In the experiment, study participants watched an abridged version of Rudy, an uplifting film about a determined football player. The subjects then read two stories about what happened to Rudy later in life; half were told which story was true, while the other half were left in the dark. Even though both stories had happy endings, the group that found out the truth felt less cheerful than the group left wondering. In other words, the more people understood, the less pleasure they felt.

Researchers chalk up their results to what they call the "pleasure paradox:" The urge to understand events may reduce the joy we take in them.

"A wonderful thing about the human mind is its ability to make sense of a complex world," says Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When we confront negative experiences, our knack for finding meaning helps us cope. But on the flip side, Wilson says, we rationalize positive experiences; as they come to seem more predictable, they lose their emotional intensity.

Yet small surprises may safely and simply boost your happiness, according to Wilson. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, you may feel merrier if you don't know exactly how a movie ends. Says Wilson, "I must say I don't follow my own advice."