Harry Beckwith

Harry Beckwith J.D.


How To Be Happier

How To Be Happier

Posted Jul 15, 2011

Sipping on an iced coffee yesterday morning,I noticed a frowning mother at the next table.  In less than a minute, I learned the reason for her expression: Her daughter was pleading the negligence case against her husband. He worked too much and helped too little.

That must have been one bad review too many for her mother, who interrupted by raising her waving palm in the classic "Stop" gesture.

"I've told you," the mom said. "You must lower your expectations."

It's timeless advice that is being uttered right now, somewhere in the world. And it is not quite right, as I will now attempt to prove.

We start with the true story of the Palo Alto, California hotel who had a frequent female guest. The woman visited so often, in fact, that the hotel's owner ordered a room completely redecorated for her. Months later, a local reporter interviewed the pampered guest to see how she felt.

"It's funny," she replied, "At first I was thrilled, then I was pleased. And now, honestly, I wonder what they will do for me next."

General Motors learned a similar lesson in the mid-1980s. It significantly improved the quality of its cars, and over 90 percent of its customers reported they were far more satisfied than before. And then those very satisfied customerss went out and bought Toyotas, Fords, and Hondas. Fewer than half bought another GM product.

My experience with client and personal relationships show me the paradoxical dynamic that is operating here. When we delight someone, it does more than delight them. It also raises their expectations; they expect to be delighted again, but need more to delight them. A dozen roses works magic on you the first time--but what if he sends another dozen three months later?

We keep raising our bars. We see "O" by Cirque de Soleil, for example, and are never able to appreciate a garden-variety circus again. That witty conversationalist on our first date becomes amusing on our second date and a bit much on our third.

The eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow captured this dilemma--the Happiness Paradox--decades ago: "The human animal is incapable of being satisfied except for brief moments. Once satisfied, it moves to the next need it needs to be fill."

This is the Irony of Client Satisfaction: The better you do, the even better you must do the next time.

And this is the Irony of  Happiness: The more pleased you are, the harder it becomes to please you the next time.

This appears vividly in our economy. We are urged to want more. But acquiring more never works. Buying five pairs of shoes ultimately fuels our desire to buy five more, and soon thereafter wonder why all those Manolo Blahniks aren't making us happier.

We are racing on the Hedonic Treadmill, and the cheese doesn't get closer the faster we pedal. We just become more exhausted. So that frustrated mother's advice wasn't precise enough. It's not that we need to lower our expectations. We just need to stop raising them.

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