"The music felt like sustenance to me, like food, like all the things I’d once taken for granted that had now become sources of ecstasy for me because I’d been denied them." - Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
My wife and I faced a dilemma. A couple of years ago, a new restaurant opened in our neighborhood. Its food is utterly delicious, with locally sourced ingredients, and a whimsical menu bursting with creativity. Its service is warm and friendly, and its prices are reasonable. Where restaurants are concerned, it is the complete package, or so we think. Soon we were stopping in every week, spending more money there than we should have, and becoming on first-name terms with the hostess and wait-staff.
But after a few months of visiting there weekly, we noticed something disconcerting. Neither one of us was enjoying the experience quite as much as we used to. We didn’t look forward to going there anymore. Some weeks it seemed more of an obligation, or even worse, a burdensome weekly ritual like filling gas in the car.
Now nothing about this restaurant had changed. If anything, its menu had solidified, its execution had improved, and the service was as good as ever.
So what happened?
Upon reflection, we had acted in ways that are all too common in this time of abundance and fragmented attention. Luckily, once we realized the problem, we used ideas based on consumer psychology research to get back on track.
Here, I am going to discuss the things we changed about eating at that restaurant because the changes paid off. They brought back the pleasure and enjoyment that had diminished for us. Since then, we have used these methods in other situations successfully as well.
Our consumer culture puts too much emphasis on how often we do something, especially when it’s a positive experience. If we enjoy something, as “normal” consumers, we are expected to do it more often. For instance, a football team’s most loyal fans are seen as those who have season tickets, never miss a single home game, and even follow their team cross-country. Enquire about whether such extreme following is affordable or if it optimizes enjoyment or whether it has become nothing more than an endurance test or a painful form of display, and people will begin to doubt your status as a loyal fan.
This “more is better & more is natural” mindset also plays out in marketers’ models of consumer behavior. Most marketers believe that delivering a satisfying customer experience will not only lead to greater purchases, but more frequent purchases. So it makes perfect sense for our neighborhood restaurant to expect that if we are delighted with its food and service, we will visit more often.
But the truth of the matter is that for many consumption experiences, there is an inverse relation between frequency and the enjoyment. One important reason is what social psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein call “hedonic adaptation.” People get accustomed to anything that evokes an emotional response rather quickly. In turn, the emotional response is muted. Hedonic adaptation is useful because it allows us to wriggle away from stimuli that would otherwise take over our lives and redirect our attention to other things.
Another reason why repeating an experience frequently undermines enjoyment is that its novelty and the associated excitement wears off. As consumer psychologists point out, when repeated, sensory experiences lose their zing and become routine.
Simply put, my wife and I got used to this marvelous restaurant’s food, ambiance, and service, even though they were all of such high quality. What should have been special became humdrum in its abundance.
Understanding this, we decided to break free from this vicious cycle of hedonic adaptation and habituation. For several months, we did not visit the restaurant at all. During this time, we tried out a few other restaurants but ate at home more often. Our strategy was also based on psychological studies showing that interrupting a positive experience and experiencing greater variety can both help to reduce adaptation.
After this "restaurant fast" was over, we limit our visits to once every two or three months.
It is not enough to visit the restaurant less often. Studies show that another consequence of frequent consumption is that something that is cognitively engaging when it is new becomes “routinized response behavior” over time, performed without much thought or attention. As repeat customers, we developed a script for eating at the restaurant. Go at a certain time, sit in one particular booth, order more or less the same things, surf the web, text, and answer email during the meal, etc. We stopped paying attention to the very things about the experience that created our pleasure.
In the reboot, we changed all this. Now, we treat each visit as a special outing to which we try to give our complete attention. We leave our phones in the car and actually talk to each other, we order different daily specials from the menu each time, and we savor each bite. We admire the skill with which each dish has been prepared and appreciate the quality of the ingredients used to make it. Much has been said in social psychology about the benefits of mindfulness. For us, paying full attention to the now rare experience and reducing distractions has increased the intensity of our enjoyment.
The third trick to increasing our enjoyment is that we plan each visit in advance. Instead of an impromptu last-minute decision, we make plans at least a few days in advance. We put the date and time in our calendars. This gives us the chance to savor the anticipation of the upcoming experience. There is interesting consumer psychology research suggesting that when there is a self-imposed delay between choosing a product and consuming it, consumption enjoyment increases. In one study conducted by consumer psychologists Stephen Nowlis, Naomi Mandel and Deborah Brown McCabe, the authors asked participants to choose one of two types of chocolates (Hershey’s Kisses or Hugs). Those who had to wait half an hour after choosing to eat the chocolate enjoyed it much more than those who got their choice immediately.
In our harried lives, planning in advance and imposing a delay between choosing and consuming seems counterproductive. But we have found that anticipating the delicious meal adds zest to our dining experience.
For us, the moral of this story was that special experiences remain special only when we work diligently to make them so. The conventional wisdom that “more” or “more often” is better simply does not work if our goal is to derive the most pleasure from an experience. Marketers have the incentive to make us buy and consume more, even if it is not in our best interests. No one has the incentive to get us to consume less. So we have to do this for ourselves.
Since then, we used these three methods for other experiences – watching a concert, throwing a party, taking a vacation trip, and even something as small as drinking a special cocktail. Doing such activities rarely, but with focused attention each time (without smartphones!), some advance planning, and deliberate savoring of anticipation greatly increases our enjoyment of these activities. Not to say these methods also have other important benefits such as helping us to live within our means and increasing the general happiness of our lives.