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Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am an endless knowledge seeker, so on first pass I naturally scoff at the notion we could somehow be blissfully ignorant. AS such, on face value, “is ignorance bliss?” seems like an asinine question. My desire to educate myself on how to be happy has fueled my involvement with the International Positive Psychology Association and my study of academic thought leaders in this space — people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Barbara Fredrickson — to learn ways to be happier. However, lately I have observed that there are a lot of instances where more information leads to dismay. At a basic level, I watched my one-year-old son thoroughly enjoy a simple train set for months.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

There is a great store where we live that has cheap, recycled toy train parts, so my wife and I continued to introduce train pieces and have made my son’s set more robust over the past few months. We loved doing it for him because he couldn’t get enough… until the day he did. As we continued to add disparate train pieces with the best of intentions, some trains do not fit certain tracks — some trains fit the existing track but are too tall to go under the existing bridge that came with the original set. What has ensued is confusion and frustration. I have let it go on because I think the development of problem solving outweighs the loss of bliss my son used to achieve when the set was simply enjoyable. However, this loss of bliss is observably noticeable and therefore significant. We are basically making my son unhappy by introducing new information.

Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. —Shawn Achor

Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, surrounded by an aisle of different choices, wishing there was only one available? Science tells us endless options can be anxiety-provoking. When faced with choice, we use a lot of energy to make our final choice. When there is an abundance of choice, the cost is an increased chance that you will regret your final decision later. If you want to feel like you made a solid choice, you need to scrutinize all the available information you have available and then (once you process all this information) make your decision. But, as a general rule, does more information actually contribute to a more satisfactory outcome? How much information do we need to make an informed decision, engage in play, achieve flow, take action or simply be happy?

The topic of choice touches on different areas of our personal and professional life. Choice contributes to our happiness, as well as our social arrangements. We can view the argument of “ignorance is bliss” through the lenses of behavioral psychology, philosophy, politics, education and marketing sciences. The topic is provocative since it juxtaposes our general wish for autonomy with a more paternalistic and prescriptive view. In a world that is filled with seemingly constant impulses and endless options, we would often like to believe we are happier when we have all the information. However, this might not always be congruent with the desire to reduce our stress and feel balanced.

When Choosing Feels like Losing

The paradox of choice is not a new phenomenon; we can observe it in different areas of our lives, from the food we eat to who we are attracted to. Nowadays, there are so many options available to us in every aspect of our life. If you are not completely satisfied or happy, why not dump what you have and replace it (or even him/her) with another version?  Why should you practice discipline and perseverance when it is so easy to find yourself a superior model to what you have now? Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote extensively about the paradox of choice and argues that Americans do not seem to be benefiting from all the choice that is available to us (Schwartz, 2004).

Various research also shows us that when more choice is available, we are more likely to be dissatisfied with what we finally choose. Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) explored this idea in their study of online dating. When participants selected their dates from a larger set of people, they were more doubtful about their dating choice a week later (when compared to those who had fewer potential partners to choose from). A similar observation has been made in marketing. Studies show that people who spend more time deliberating about a decision can later feel a sense of loss towards the options they did not pick. During what we perceive to be a careful selection process, we develop a sense of attachment to our decisions, which researchers believe might be harmful to our well-being (Carmon, Wertenbroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). The premise “choosing feels like losing” has been introduced. Choosing from a set of options can lead us to a feeling of post-choice discomfort.  Once we opt for one option, we no longer possess the other — that’s just a fact. Instead of feeling a sense of relief about finally making a decision, we let negative feelings creep in and we start to feel dissatisfied. Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland and her colleagues explored different strategies that can help us help others in their decision-making process. They indicate that providing good information is one of them, but restricting options or adding restrictive options are also recommended (Ratner et al., 2008). For instance, pre-committing to a choice can free us from having to face the decision later, and can also help with self-control when more options become available. It is part of the science that makes restrictive diets like WHOLE30 episodically successful. Simply put, if we can manufacture a predisposition to making (and sticking with) a decision it makes our life a lot less challenging.

When Are You Most Free to Make Autonomous Choices?

Although we all generally value autonomy, there appears to be some ambivalence surrounding this topic. For instance, in education, some studies of problem-based learning showed that while students welcomed some degree of autonomy afforded by this technique, they were also engaged during more prescriptive approaches to studying (Harmer & Stokes, 2016). It appears that paternalism can sometimes free our energy to engage in life in a more efficient way.

From a philosophical stance, there is also a vibrant debate about what constitutes choice. It is pretty easy to find critics anytime the idea of a “forced choice” is brought up. For example, in the West, we have the freedom to choose (and this is widely lauded). However, sometimes, there is the subtle (unspoken) condition that we ought to choose the right thing. If we fail to do that, we can be ostracized and, and in a way we lose some of our freedom to choose (Žižek, 1989). How many “forced choices” do we make just to remain a part of our community (or “tribe”) and conform to the expectations of our environment? In choice, too, there appears to be a degree of ignorance we are willing to accept to “keep the peace” and avoid the cognitive dissidence of malalignment with the philosophy of our peers.

So a strong scientific argument can be made that a plethora of choices can create decision fatigue. Our mind simply cannot cope with an endless amount of information; our decision capacity runs out, and at this point we run the risk of making bad decisions. Our mood can worsen when we are faced with too many choices as well. Research shows that too much choice leads to suboptimal decisions (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, significant decisions should not be made when we are fatigued or in a bad mood. This was illustrated by a study of judicial decisions conducted at four major prisons in Israel (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). The authors examined parole decisions made by experienced judges. It transpired that having a break (thus feeling less fatigued) influenced the judges’ ruling. More favorable decisions were made in the mornings (at the start of the work day) and after food breaks — this pattern was predictable, possibly confirming our need to rest and replenish our energy before making an important decision. It appears a good decision can sometimes be more about the timing, and less about the choices we are presented with. The saying “sleep on it” might sound simplistic, but it has some scientific credence.

Then, there is the scientific theory behind choice architecture. If you are interested in going down the rabbit hole of choice and well-being, I suggest following Brian Wansink. In various studies, Dr. Wansink has shown that if you crowd out the ability to make bad decisions by rigging your environment towards a bias to make good ones, you can steer yourself and/or others towards healthy behaviors (never the wiser that they’ve been unwittingly influenced). As I became aware firsthand in my study about workplace wellness strategies, people do not like to know their choices have been limited; however, if the reduction of choice is unobserved, one can rig the system for people to make specific decisions (arguably in their best interest) based on controlling the information available to them.

When Are You Most Free to Be Creative?

A study by Associate Professors Anne-Laure Sellier and Darren W. Dahl challenged the established belief that having more choice fuels creativity. They conducted two experiments that focused on knitting and crafting. The selection of creative inputs was increased from moderate to extensive: a bigger selection of yarn colors in the case of knitting; and a larger selection of shapes for a Christmas tree decoration in the case of crafting. Interestingly, the creative output of experienced and knowledgeable participants was negatively affected by more choice. Those who were less experienced, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be effected by the change in choice but it did not enhance their expereince either. The authors concluded that restricted choice could be better for creative success as it allows us to focus more — and actually enjoy the creative process more — particularly if already experienced or skilled in that pursuit (Sellier & Dahl, 2011).

One of my heroes, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of decades ago wrote how restricting choice could reduce stress and anxiety. Choice does give us the feeling that we can be more creative. However, this feeling is just that — a feeling — it is generally an illusion. Science suggests we have more difficulty focusing and enjoying an activity when provided with an extensive choice.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is Ignorance Bliss? Maybe.

Science tends to back up why my wife and I might have been unintentional wet blankets. When we have too much information, we risk the potential of decision paralysis. We are given less room to follow our creative paths, engage in flow and — let’s face it — sometimes enjoy ourselves. Other studies by Darren Dahl also highlighted that the highest level of enjoyment is achieved when there is a right balance between restriction (e.g. providing limits around a task) and the freedom to create with autonomy (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). It is important to note that while researching this topic has in no way curtailed my thirst for knowledge, but it has garnered a new respect for the relationship our happiness has with information and choice. For many of us, happiness is a choice. We don’t need to be ignorant to be blissful, but waiting around for the right information does not appear to help any either. To contrary, in some cases it may do the opposite.

Sources & further reading:

Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: when deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 15–29.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Dahl, D. W., & Moreau, C. P. (2007). Thinking Inside the Box: Why Consumers Enjoy Constrained Creative Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 44(3), 357. doi:10.1509/jmkr.44.3.357

D’Angelo, J., & Toma, C. (2016). There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners. Media Psychology, 1-27. doi:10.1080/15213269.2015.1121827

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 108(17),6889-6892

Harmer, N., & Stokes, A. (2016). “Choice may not necessarily be a good thing”: student attitudes to autonomy in interdisciplinary project-based learning in GEES disciplines. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 40(4), 531-545. doi:10.1080/03098265.2016.1174817

Ratner, R. K., Soman, D., Zauberman, G., Ariely, D., Carmon, Z., Keller, P. A., & … Wertenbroch, K. (2008). How behavioral decision research can enhance consumer welfare: From freedom of choice to paternalistic intervention. Marketing Letters, (3/4). 383

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Sellier, A., & Dahl, D. W. (2011). Focus!! Creative Success Is Enjoyed Through Restricted Choice. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 48(6), 996-1007. doi:10.1509/jmr.10.0407

Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso Books.

Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

Businesses are continuing to look towards viable workplace wellness strategies, and these programs are increasing in popularity, despite inconclusive evidence regarding their return on investment and effectiveness. Analysts are so bullish on the growth of workplace wellness programs that the sputtering consumer wearable market is banking on their success by speculating on the opportunities being made available as large enterprises continue to expand their employee well-being programs through technology.

According to a government-funded RAND study in 2013, about one in every two American employers offers some form of initiative that promotes employee wellness (Mattke et al., 2013). Going into 2017, this saturation is probably higher. Corporate wellness stakeholders often want to know how much money they will save if they introduce or expand a wellness program for their employees. They look for hard data to support their decisions, and many decision makers continue to rely on return on investment (ROI) as a quantitative measure to gauge program efficacy. However, because proving program ROI has been elusive, it has been suggested by those in corporate wellness trade organizations that other factors should be considered when assessing the long-term benefits of these programs. As an alternative to ROI, there has been an attempt to introduce value on investment (VOI) to capture some of these program’s intangible benefits. These “intangibles” include subjective measures such as: contributions to knowledge, collaboration, innovation, presenteeism, retention and employee engagement (Hight, 2012; Norris, 2003). The contrived VOI model has basically become essential in attempting to financially justify funding and investment in most programs (Norris, 2003).

Workplace Wellness Research for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

For the most part, the primary focus of academic research regarding workplace wellness programs has been large enterprises. However, the findings of these studies are often not generalizable to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. There is a significant and growing need for models and strategies that can benefit smaller organizations. This need is especially significant considering that a majority of employees in the American workforce serve small and mid-sized companies (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). My recent study “Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small Businesses” attempted to fill the knowledge gap that exists in this area. My purpose was to determine what common strategies are being used by small to mid-sized business (SMBs) that had both effective and viable workplace wellness programs.

Workplace Wellness Strategies in Small and Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs)

Four organizations participated in the study: a beverage distributor, a boutique hotel, a general contracting firm and a service-based company. I conducted in-depth interviews and studied company artifacts. The data collected was compared for similarities, differences and patterns (a comparative case study approach), and data analysis was performed according to the standards of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This process provided me the opportunity to uncover and better understand the commonalities of effective and viable SMB workplace wellness strategies that were demonstrated by these four companies.

My findings found 19 strategies used by these effective programs. Five overreaching concepts are identified that helped organize these strategies:

  • Innovation
  • Company culture
  • Employee-centric
  • Environment
  • Altruism
Effective and Viable Workplace Wellness Strategies

One of the common characteristics (“concepts”) of the programs studied was their ability to be innovative. The positive company culture within the businesses themselves was another commonality of successful programs. The employee-centric concept referred to the company’s desire to care for the well-being of its employees. All companies that participated in the study also worked proactively to create healthier work environments and provide healthier options for their employees. Finally, the concept of altruism referred to the company’s inherent desire to help others, and included the presence of a selfless leader running the workplace wellness program.

These five primary concepts each had corresponding strategies presented as themes. For instance, innovation was connected with non-traditional approaches, constant iteration and refinement, ideas that were internal to the company, thoughtful use of technology and the “fail fast” concept (often found in lean methodology). Company culture presented themes that include employee influence and involvement, authenticity and leadership that did not directly get involved (in program design), but instead provided autonomy to the right people within the business to run the programs effectively. The concept of employee-centric got expressed through various holistic approaches to employee well-being, starting with the employee’s well-being as a foundation (in contrast to considering economic motives), as well as through shouldering the financial burden of employee health care costs and tailoring their wellness approach to the needs of the employees. Concern for the external and internal corporate environment was shown in themes that described the designation of physical space for well-being considerations, company community involvement and the provision of healthy options for the employees. Altruism related to a selfless program leader, appreciation of program feedback and a program budget that was based largely on recommendations rather than mandates.

Why is this SMB Workplace Wellness Study Important?

I am proud of this study and believe it provides new insights into the characteristics of successful workplace wellness strategies. While some of the themes that emerged will feel familiar to my contemporaries, several rather surprising findings were identified as well. A better understanding of these factors — combined with validation of the more common strategies already well-established — this study gives SMBs programs a new, unique map to improve their workplace wellness strategies. What I have documented is a set of strategies that transcends the cookie cutter advice commonly disseminated by workplace wellness providers (generally tailored for big business) because their motive is to move large corporate clients into their sales funnel.

A poignant example of this is a theme that surprised me: that some of the most successful program ideas were internal. This is contrary to the established belief that workplace wellness ideas get cascaded down from vendors and brokers that offer employee well-being services at scale (Hughes et al., 2011). Although my professional role is working for a provider (Active Wellness), my study was conducted as a doctoral candidate, and in taking an unbiased look at these programs the data suggests health promotion vendors (catering to big businesses) might not be the optimal providers of workplace wellness strategies to SMBs. Another interesting assertion I make is challenging the common wisdom that successful programs rely on involvement from leadership. Historically, it has been generally advised that managers should personally promote wellness initiatives, act as role models and engage with employees in wellness (O’Boyle & Harter, 2014). My study, however, did not support this established view. In the case of the four companies that participated, wellness thrived in environments where leadership passed the responsibility for wellness programs to the right person within the organization. That person was given the autonomy to implement the program in a viable way based on the culture of the organization. Intuitively, one might posit managers within SMBs might not always be the best qualified to lead by example. Running SMBs often is fairly stressful and requires managers to play multiple strategic roles. Therefore, these individuals in many cases should not necessarily champion wellness initiatives if they are already struggling to maintain their own wellness due to high levels of stress (Swaby, 2016).

My sincerest hope is that the findings of this study break new ground and can fuel a positive discussion about the importance of creating healthy workplaces and supporting employees in small and mid-size business — so these businesses can support employee well-being as effectively as larger enterprises. If you would like to learn more about this study on workplace wellness strategies, please feel free to reach out and/or you can view the study in its entirety over at the International Journal of Workplace Health Management by clicking here.

Sources & further reading:

Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006), “Using thematic analysis in psychology”, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 77–101.

Hight, C. (2012,), “Move from ROI to VOI” Institute for Organization Management, available at http://institute.uschamber.com/move-from-roi-to-voi (accessed 30 June 2016).

Hughes, M. C., Patrick, D. L., Hannon, P. A., Harris, J. R., and Ghosh, D. L. (2011), “Understanding the decision-making process for health promotion programming at small to midsized businesses”,  Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 512.

Lincoln, Y. S., and Guba, E. G. (1985), Naturalistic inquiry. SAGE Publications, Newbury Park.

Mattke, S., Liu, H., Caloyeras, J. P., Huang, C. Y., Van Busum, K. R., Khodyakov, D., and Shier, V. (2013), “Workplace wellness programs study: Final report”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.

McPeck, W., Ryan, M., and Chapman, L. S. (2009), “Bringing wellness to the small employer”, American Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 23. No. 5, pp. 1–10.

Norris, D. M. (2003), “Value on investment in higher education”, EDUCAUSE Research Bulletin, No. 18, pp. 1–13, available at https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erb0318.pdf

O’Boyle, E. and Harter, J. (2014). “Why your workplace wellness program isn’t working”, Gallup Business Journal, available at  http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/168995/why-workplace-wellness-program-isn-working.aspx (accessed 5 July 2016).

Swaby, S. (2016). “Leadership wellness: The conversation no one is having”, The Good Men Project, available at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/leadership-wellness-the-conversation-no-one-is-having-part-1-snsw

 

Interview with Raj Raghunathan about Happiness

Professor Raj Raghunathan specializes in psychology, marketing, as well as the philosophy of happiness and decision making. He graduated from Birla Institute of Technology and Science and completed his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. In 2000, he earned his Ph.D. at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Raghunathan developed an online course called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillmenta 6-week course on Coursera platform. The course includes knowledge from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral decision theory. It has had over 75,000 enrollments and has been featured as a Top 10 course offered by Coursera. In 2016, Raghunathan also published the book, If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raj’s book explores how to become happy and draws on the concepts Prof. Raj calls ‘happiness habits’ and ‘happiness sins’. Raj has received several National Science Foundation Career Grant Awards. He is an associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, guest associate editor at the Journal of Marketing Research and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Research.


1) The mechanisms of a happy and fulfilling life can now be explained using science. How do you define happiness as an academic? Does it have quantifiable components or is it truly a subjective measure?

Somewhat surprisingly, happiness is both a subjective experience and measurable. The subjective part comes in two ways — the things that make different people happy, and the types of emotions with which people implicitly equate the term “happiness”. The idea that different things make different people happy is, of course, straightforward. Going sailing may reliably make some  person happy, while for others, it won’t float their boat (so to speak).

The idea that different people equate happiness with different terms is a little more subtle. Prof. Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina finds and suggests (based on work by Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley) that “positivity” comes in 10 main varieties including joy, love, serenity, hope, awe, gratitude, laughter and interest. To me, happiness is the same thing as what Prof. Frederickson calls “positivity.” In other words, in my book, you are happy so long as you are experiencing one or more of these (and other) positive emotions.

What is really interesting about all of this is that, as Prof. Ed Diener and his colleagues have found, the simplest way to measure happiness is essentially by asking people how happy they are across a few items (like, “all things considered, would you consider yourself happy right now?”). This is a highly reliable and valid method. For instance, people’s subjective reports of happiness are highly correlated with some objective correlates of happiness, like serotonin (positive correlation) or cortisol (negative correlation) levels. Likewise, people who report higher levels of happiness tend to have a thicker left pre-frontal cortex, and also tend to be thought of as being happier by their close friends, etc.

So, in a nutshell, what might appear at first blush to be a problem for happiness research, namely, that happiness is too subjective, turns out to be not such a big problem after all.

2) In your work, you suggest that being creative and having fun are habits that should be cultivated to reach higher levels of happiness. Since fun is a very subjective concept (i.e. what is fun for one person, is not necessarily fun for somebody else) how do you suggest fun might be studied more rigorously?

As I mentioned in my response to the previous question, while it is true that what is fun for one may not be fun for another, what we subjectively experience when we say we are having fun is more similar than dissimilar across people. So, for example, even if my idea of fun (say, going on a hike) is quite different from that of yours (cuddling up with a book), you will understand what I mean when I say, “Going on a hike is really fun.” You might say, “that’s not what I would call fun, but hey — different strokes for different folks!”

The point is that it’s important to have fun — in whichever way that works for you. Why? Because you are likely to be more creative, more healthy, more productive and more altruistic when you are having fun (more generally, when you are happy) than when you are not.

3) Your work points out that people who are more educated and successful are not necessarily happier. However, one could argue that with expanded education comes broader knowledge and awareness of critical issues (e.g. global warming, poverty, discrimination, injustice, the division of people), and this insight could have a negative effect on one’s sense of happiness. Can one have a thirst for universal knowledge and increase their happiness at the same time? What, in your opinion, is the relationship between seeking truth and happiness?

It is true that more knowledge and more awareness can lower happiness levels. There was a study that a few of my marketing colleagues (including Ziv Carmon and Klaus Wertenbroch) conducted in which they showed that those who spend more effort and thought in coming to a decision about which product to buy are generally less satisfied with the product than those who make it based on lower levels of effort. A main reason for this is that, when you know more, the more you know what else is possible; so, you are less happy with what you have.

The mechanism to which you allude in your question (to conclude why better informed people may be less happy) is a related one. You suggest that being informed and knowledgeable about all of the ways in which the world is screwed up may be a buzz kill. True. And this certainly seems like an important reason why the smart-and the-successful are not so happy. But I also think that there’s merit to the argument that some of the very things that make us smart or successful — like a need to be superior, the desire to control others or outcomes, or that of engaging in elaborate analyses — when taken to unhealthily high levels, can also undermine happiness levels.

A final reason why success lowers happiness has to do with how access to the yardsticks of success — fame, money, power, etc. — can make us more self-centered and materialistic. Several findings show that being self-centered and materialistic are not good form for obtaining happiness.

4) From the perspective of neuroscience, emotions are important for our decision-making processes. In a Business Insider article, you warn ‘mind addiction’ can make us ignore our gut instincts and feelings (see: ‘Mind addiction’ could help explain why smart people aren’t as happy as they could be). From your research, why do you think we have found ways to short-circuit our intuition?

Great question. It’s not that thinking through problems and overcoming emotions is always bad. Clearly, we have all experienced situations where our emotions have hijacked — or at least derailed — our decision-making process. Impulsive consumption behaviors (e.g., overeating) are all examples of this. So, one big reason why many of us become suspicious of emotions is because we do not want to commit this mistake again. But in an attempting to avoid the mistake of being too impulsive, many of us run the risk of becoming “mind-addicted”.

I think society too plays a big role in instilling mind addiction. Take schooling. Children almost never get to learn about how emotions and instincts can be useful in decision-making. That is, pre-college education almost exclusively encourages the “mind” route to solving problems and making decisions.

On top of that, most of the goals we are encouraged to pursue, from individual ones (e.g., saving enough for retirement, losing a certain amount of weight) to societal ones (e.g., increasing GDP) are quantitative in nature. So, we end up never pursuing qualitative goals (like being happy, or enhancing levels of trust in society). This overly quantitative (vs. qualitative) focus also makes us more prone to relying on the mind to solve problems, getting us increasingly out of touch with our instincts and feelings.

A final reason for mind addiction may be that women are not as well-represented in positions of leadership. So, to the extent that listening to, understanding, acknowledging, and utilizing emotions is a more feminine trait than a masculine trait, society reinforces mind addiction.

5) Mindfulness has become a very popular concept recently, and you often mention it in your work as being a habit that can support happiness. Purportedly, Maslow never published the final version of his hierarchy of needs pyramid in which self-actualization is followed by self-transcendence. Do you think that mindfulness practice might ultimately prove to be a useful tool towards self-transcendence? Or, alternatively, do you see this practice as more a simple, yet very effective, evidence-based cognitive technique to help identify that a lot of what makes us unhappy is merely a waterfall of mindless thoughts and we have more power over these than most believe?

Good question again. I personally think mindfulness has the potential to both offer the “lower order” benefit of reducing stress and enhancing happiness and the “higher order” benefit of self-transcendence. What I mean by self-transcendence (and I imagine you do too) is not something that is necessarily mystical or spiritual. Rather, it’s just the subjective experience of not perceiving oneself as separate from something that we would “normally” consider external. So, for example, when we are so involved in an activity that we lose track of time, or do not feel self-conscious (the critical voice in the back of the head is gone), we merge with the activity to experience a state that Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously called “flow.” Flow is a transcendental experience in the sense that there is a subjective feeling that one has merged with the activity in which one is involved.

Likewise, being in love is self-transcendental, because one feels this sense of merging with the object of one’s love.

In a similar way, mindfulness can provide a transcendental experience — providing one is able to do it correctly, which may require practice. By “doing it correctly,” I mean doing what is often considered the main aim of mindfulness — “being aware without judgment”. Being aware without judgment means being aware from the perspective of what might be called “bare attention”. Bare attention is very different from mind attention. Mind attention is what leads us to judge, categorize, comment, etc. on whatever is going on. Bare attention, on the other hand, means just being aware of the object of one’s attention without the accompanying commentary. It is difficult to do, but can be learned through practice. Once one is able to successfully take the stance of bare attention, one experiences this transcendental sense of being merged with the object of observation, resulting in what Douglas Harding called a “headless experience”. Sam Harris describes this experience very well in his book, Waking Up, as well.

Interview with Chip Conley about Creating Joy

Chip Conley began his journey in creating “joy” by transforming a seedy motel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco into the legendary Phoenix hotel. Under the umbrella Joie de Vivre (translated to mean: the exuberant enjoyment of life), the endeavor grew to 40 unique hotels spread across California. He has authored several books, including Emotional Equations, PEAK and The Rebel Rules. Currently Chip serves as the Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb and the Chief Strategy Officer of Everfest, a company that connects the festival community online.


1) Now that you have immersed yourself in the world of festivals, what are the commonalities that make these experiences so impactful and life changing? For instance, there are elements that distinguish the Rise Festival from say, an Outside Lands. What are the essential elements of exceptional festivals that set them apart from a run-of-the-mill collective experience?

There is a French sociologist named Émile Durkheim, and in 1912 he wrote about the nature of pilgrimages. He coined the expression “collective effervescence” that really describes what makes a festival different. He used this term in the context of religious pilgrimages, but I actually think a festival where you become part of the installation — in an environment where people are somewhat out of their customary social environment — that is where transformation tends to happen. When you go to a concert, generally you go there for the day and then you go somewhere else. Collective effervescence happens when your sense of ego almost evaporates and what it is replaced with is a sense of common mission, and a common connection, with other people — that’s the beauty of a festival. The more digital we get, the more ritual we need. In this context, ritual is the IRL experience vs. the URL experience. The URL experience is what we do online, IRL is “in real life,” and I think that the more we are possessed by our gadgets, the more we need to have opportunities for connection in real life. Furthermore, there is no doubt that habitat influences our behavior and what we are willing to accept. A particular festival may have a set of guiding principles (e.g. Burning Man’s 10 Principles). What is really great when a festival does have principles — and they are well-advertised and promoted — is as an attendee you know what you are getting yourself into and also what is expected of you to participate.

2) You are well known for creating physical space and visceral experiences that create joy. Like any good master, you have pulled elements from other disciplines ranging from positive psychology to physical art. What is one of the most profound lessons you have learned along the way? Perhaps one you found the most surprising about the craft of creating joy?

I have always loved throwing parties. I throw the grand opening parties for my hotels, and every five years I throw a party somewhere in the world for just my friends. I did this last year in Baja with 125 friends. It was great. I just threw a party for 20,000 people in Los Angeles for Airbnb. What would normally be considered a conference, we reimagined as a festival and broke conventional rules. This was the third event of this type for Airbnb, and this time we wanted the format to be a bit uncomfortable at first. Not uncomfortable physically, but more like the attendees did not know what they were getting themselves into. A level of curiosity like, “I do not feel like I am in a normal environment.” This level of stress can actually help people to find parts of themselves that they did not know exist. We had the event in a somewhat sketchy area of Los Angeles. There are historic, beautiful theaters that we used as part of the installation. We took over five historic theaters, we took over about seven different retail spaces, and at least three parking lots. We used this environment for workshop spaces, conversation spaces and creative spaces for people to connect. What I believe is that what is remarkable — what creates joy — is when something surprises you and then it delights you. There can be surprise and disappointment or there can be surprise and delight — when it is surprise and delight, it is unexpected. Unexpected delight is memorable. I think interesting juxtapositions do this very well. When juxtaposition is done well, our brain is literally going through a process of having to imagine two things together, for instance, art and spirituality. The blending of ideas can lead to illumination. You see something in a way you never thought of before. The best way to describe someone who is a great festival producer: they are a curator. So, you try to curate an experience, create a habitat for people to have peak experiences. When there is nice mix of unfamiliarity and you push through boundaries — joy comes with that feeling that some level of accomplishment, some level of progress, has taken place. This growth allows you to feel a sense of exhilaration.

3) In your book, The Rebel Rules, you talk about the benefit of sabbaticals to avoid burnout. For many, these opportunities will only manifest a handful of times in a lifetime. As such, in your experience examining both successful “rebels” and those with an affinity for wanderlust, have you identified any strategies for those who embark on soul-searching expeditions to help maximize their outcome?

Creating space (whatever space means in the context of some individual freedom) and seeing what emerges is pretty important. Now, you literally could do that on a weekend. You could say, “Okay, this weekend I am going to put an office message that just says: I’M NOT CHECKING EMAILS THIS WEEKEND.” You hide your phone. For two days you go digital free. You go through a digital detox and maybe you have nothing planned, you literally just allow spontaneity or serendipity to rule those two days. That process might actually start to bring some things up for you, including fear. A lot of us like structure, a lot of us like to have a calendar that is full because it lets us know, “Okay, this is what I accomplished today.” There are a lot of people that need to ‘accomplish’ things to feel alive. So, I think not everyone needs a six-month sabbatical — at least not as a first step. Even if you have the opportunity to take a sabbatical because your life has created a transition, it might be foolish to assume that you know what you are going to get out of a sabbatical. For me, my sabbatical was not really even a true sabbatical, but more along the lines of “what’s juicy for me right now?” For me it was festivals, and I started going on that path, and I went to five festivals in Asia in the winter of 2013 and came back starting Fest300. Then, all of a sudden, out of that emerged the founders of the Airbnb approaching me and saying, “we want to turn our little tech company into a hospitality company, will you help us do it?” I have been doing that for almost four years now. Sometimes you have to make space to grow; I might not have taken the call from Brian Chesky four years ago if I had not taken time for renewal. When you create space, you are in a better place to take the blinders off, which gives you the opportunity to see things you might not have seen otherwise. So making space is one strategy. A second strategy is meditation. I try to meditate twice a day if I can. That experience is my form of a daily sabbatical, because it allows me to decompress and disconnect. It does not have to be meditation — some people like taking afternoon naps, for others it is going for that four-mile run that they do every day. Whatever it is that helps you to break with the linear mind. However, there is not a prescription that is right for everybody. I think for me, knowing my tendencies, having a really open field is probably wise because if I am too prescriptive about what I want at the end of a six-month sabbatical, the end result will be a linear to-do list, which defeats the purpose. With that said, realize your sabbatical probably should be the opposite of what you normally have. For me, I need space to be open to new ideas. For someone else, they may need a sabbatical because they are so lost that the purpose of their sabbatical is more oriented around a mission or some level of achievement.

4) There can be a bit of an underbelly to festival culture, where it is purported that some that identify with this lifestyle and chase experience, do so with hedonistic self-interest. A recent example are some of the complaints coming from Standing Rock (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/standing-rock-north-dakota-access-pipeline-burning-man-festival-a7443266.html). In consideration that this may exist, how does contribution, responsibility and ethics factor into organizing any collective experience?

I think hedonism in moderation is appropriate, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. However, festivals can become an addiction, just like so many other things in life. I think one of the things that Burning Man has done quite brilliantly is creating 10 principles that define this community. The main event and other events around the world that are sanctioned to be Burning Man affiliated help this community to hold ourselves accountable when we see people not living up to them. No one is perfect of course, and the Burning Man principles are not right for every festival. The problem with a lot of festivals is they lack principles. Often when you lack principles what you get is the lowest common denominator. Without an inherent culture, you get something that takes people to their basic instincts. Getting back to your first question, I think the part that is truly beautiful is when you see that collective effervescence happen. Collective effervescence means that people are losing their sense of ego and their sense of identity and, in the process, feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. I think that if principles are articulated well, and these principles are lived out in such a way that they help people move beyond their own selfish needs (in the process of experiencing the festival), then principles have the potential to create a better legacy for the event. If an event is something that is purely hedonistic — and it is important to note that there are festivals that survive and do quite well within that environment — you diminish the ability to somehow feel like there is something bigger than your own personal, hedonistic needs. Great festivals elevate people and help people to transcend their own petty grievances and desires. A great festival is a community of people experiencing something together. So, if it’s a collection of individuals as opposed to a community of like-minded people, the risk is, if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, pretty low on the pyramid with regards to experience. At these type of events the moment that somebody else is attracting you as an individual to something over here, or a new shiny object there, whimsy just takes you over there because you don’t feel any connection to the purpose of the event. Festivals are at their best when they really do help people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

So the issue you have highlighted is not a festival problem — the definition of addiction is using something as a distraction, as a means of not feeling something. Festivals can play this role. If you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience… festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, “What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?”

5) If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of creating joy, but was at the beginning of their journey and was looking for mentorship, what three pieces of advice would you impart on them to begin acquiring the mastery to be successful in this pursuit?

1) Understanding who you were as a little kid always helps, because weirdly there are clues in your childhood that help you understand what it is that gave you that sense of timeless wonder. Timeless wonder is usually a pretty healthy place to seek out in that Joseph Campbell “follow your bliss” approach to life. So, start by doing a personal archeology project about your childhood. Talk to your friends, talk to your brothers and sisters, your parents, whoever you spent time with as a child. Look at pictures of yourself at childhood and get a sense of what it was that gave you bliss. How can you manifest that in your adult life? I was always fascinated about Walt Disney and how he created Disneyland. I was fascinated by creating experiences for kids in the neighborhood, so… I would do just that. I would create a restaurant in my mom’s dining room for instance. There are clues there — find them.

2) Look at who you admire. Who are the people out there in the world as adults who are living their life in such a way that they could be a model for you? Who is actually having joy in how they experience their life? Who is doing it in a way that gives them a sense that they are living their calling? This does not have to be just in the work world; you could live your calling as a political activist, you could live your calling as an Ironman athlete, you could live your calling as a grandmother. Figuring out what it is that gives you that sense of passion in life and seeing it in other people — this helps you develop a better picture of what life might look like for you.

3) The way to bring joy to people is helping them to feel like they are a kid again. The Celebrity Pool Toss has been going on for 25 years now — a fundraiser we do at my first hotel, The Phoenix. It is a fundraiser for TNDC’s afterschool program for kids. We have created a fundraiser based upon the high bidder getting to toss a celebrity in the swimming pool of the hotel. The reason that it has lived for 25 years now — raising over $7 million for afterschool programs — is because it allows people to act like a kid. Auctions are a bit fun too, but the process of actually throwing someone in the pool is very childlike. I think providing people that sense of being able to break out of their normal formality — helping people feel less contained. Burning Man is a somewhat extreme example. Getting the chance to toss people in the pool is a very simple example, but still effective of reconnecting with a sense of freedom that might have gotten lost in adulthood.

A word of caution for those looking to create an event. Some people find joy in being spectators, others in being participants. Some events are better suited for everybody to be a participant, some are suited for some people to be participants and some to spectate. I think a key to success is to make sure people know what they are opting in for. So, if you are creating an event with the aim of creating joy — if your idea centers around everybody participating, you better make sure the attendees know that in advance.

Why You Need More Fun in Your Life, According to Science

Why You Need More Fun in Your Life, According to Science
—George Bernard Shaw
Most of us want to have fun, it just seems like it is not as easy as it used to be. The reasons are many: guilt (because others aren’t having fun), perceived inappropriateness (because others around us cannot have fun) or lack of time (because our commitment to others won’t let us have fun). Yet, science gives an encouraging nod that we need to make time for fun and should perhaps prioritize it.

Since the term “fun” can be ambiguous and is often used in different contexts, let us first look at the standard definition of the word. Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines fun as: amusement, especially lively or playful. Staying true to the definition we generally connect the word fun to things that are entertaining and enjoyable to do. Fun is also sometimes used interchangeably with play — although there is a distinction as fun is argue that play is a state of mind; a certain attitude we can incorporate into any and every activity (Brown, 2009).

It is important to keep in mind that what is fun for you, might not be fun for somebody else. Therefore, fun can be difficult to investigate using standardized scientific methods. As such, scientific conclusions about the benefits of fun come from subjective observations and less rigorous studies. Nonetheless, there are enough studies that indirectly link to the concept of fun and play that a case can be made that we all need fun.

Here are five reasons science suggests you should have fun:

  1. Fun improves your relationships, both at work and in life

Research shows that when we have fun with others, these experiences have a positive effect on building trust and developing communication. Having fun gives us an opportunity to connect and be creative. When we laugh together, this sends an external non-verbal message that says: “We are alike, we share values” (Everett, 2011).  It can also make us look more vulnerable, but at the same time approachable and friendly, which can help build connections and bonds. Drs. John and Julie Gottmann, relationship experts from the Seattle’s Gottman Research Institute, have been studying happy and unhappy couples (and their patterns of behavior) in a systematic way. They found that couples who are happy know how to have fun together. It appears that when we have the ability to create and partake in acts of humor and affection, our conflict resolution skills improve as well.

Studies show that fun activities at work can improve our relationships with co-workers. These strong bonds developed with our colleagues have been linked to improved performance and productivity (Kansal, Puja, & Maheshwari, 2012).

  1. Fun makes us smarter

According to science, one way to improve our memory and concentration is to have fun. Partially, this has to do with the stress reduction that happens when we engage in something we enjoy. However, the benefits of fun activities seem to stretch further than that. The British Cohort Study — a study that has been following 17,000 people born in 1970 — found that reading for fun improves our language skills, and more surprisingly our proficiency in math as well. It appears that fun activities that introduce us to new ideas and concepts foster self-directed learning. The rewards we gain from these experiences might expand beyond the obvious benefits. Scientists are now also exploring if reading for fun can also protect us against cognitive decline as we age.

  1. Fun reduces stress

You probably do not need science to inherently know this already: engaging in enjoyable activities can be an especially powerful antidote to stress. It has been recognized in several studies that spontaneous laughter has a stress-buffering effect that helps us better cope with stress. According to one study, individuals who laughed less had more negative emotions when compared to those who laughed more. In contrast, those who laughed more showed fewer negative feelings even when stressful situations increased (Kuiper & Martin, 1998). Interestingly, this same study found that there is no correlation between having a good sense of humor and displaying stronger or more intense emotions. As such, therapeutic laughter programs are now being developed and evaluated, and are sometimes offered as treatments for depression, stress and anxiety (Kim et al., 2015). It appears that there is some truth to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”

  1. Finding fun in physical activity balances your hormone levels

It has been well-established that high stress levels negatively influence our hormones and neurotransmitters (especially cortisol and noradrenalin). Stress also affects our endocrine, metabolic and immune functions. Hormones can have an amazing effect on our mood — this is true for both genders (Koelsch et al., 2016). Certain hormones, such as cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen, can be particularly influential and cause havoc when we have an imbalance. One way to naturally balance hormones is to engage in pleasurable physical activity (e.g. Abbenhardt et al., 2013). In other words, adaptation is not reliant on intense physical activity but rather consistent recreational exercise. When it comes to exercise, find what fun means to you and bake it in to your routine.

  1. Fun can make you more energetic and youthful

Stress is draining — it can suck the life out of us, making us tired and cranky. When we effectively reduce our stress levels, this can often provide us with a new boost of vitality. Having fun and playing have traditionally been connected with children and the early years of our development. However, many philosophers and psychologists emphasize the importance of play as we get older. Plato professed that life must be lived as play, and George Bernard Shaw famously said: We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

Fun at Work

Having fun at work might be just as important as having fun in your personal life. Everett (2011) concludes that since we will spend more than 90,000 hours of our lives at work, we might as well have fun there. Some of the benefits of playing on the job include:

Higher recruitment and retention rates. Organizations that nourish creativity and playfulness in employees have less difficulty recruiting and retaining good staff, and it is an encouraging trend that more modern organizations are balancing work and play than in prior decades (Everett, 2011). For example, here in the Bay Area Google is known for having a fun workplace and is also a very desirable company to work for. Sponsoring fun activities has also been recognized as a measure to prevent burnout (Meyer, 1999).

– Increased job satisfaction. Employees must feel satisfied to be productive. There are many factors that contribute to job satisfaction, which logically also correlates to overall life satisfaction. When we can laugh and have fun at work, we can also build better relationships and help create connections with our workmates. Doing fun things together creates a joint history with our fellow employees. When we have fun together we tend to relate to and identify with our coworkers better. Some authors believe that “teams that play together, stay together,” so it is important to create organizational culture that supports that (Berg, 2001).

Increased customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is generally closely linked with employee satisfaction. Workers who have something to smile about are usually better equipped to make customers smile than their melancholy counterparts. Fun seems to be contagious — as shown by studies looking at work environments. For example, when a fun work philosophy was adopted at Sprint, this resulted in their call center agents handling 30 percent more calls, and customers expressing an increased level of satisfaction with their services (Karl & Peluchette, 2006).

Everett (2011) also points out that fun should not be made mandatory. It ceases to be fun then, and can actually contribute to feelings of stress among employees. It is important to consider that people’s perceptions of fun (and what fun means to them) may vary and that they do not necessarily want to have fun in a certain way, at a certain time.

[FUN FACT]: Did you know that according to a study from 1998, adults only laugh on average 17 times a day (Kuiper, & Martin, 1998)?  If you have a good joke, leave it in the comments so we can help push up this average.

 

Sources & further reading:

Abbenhardt, C., McTiernan, A., Alfano, C., Wener, M., Campbell, K., Duggan, C., & … Ulrich, C. (2013). Effects of individual and combined dietary weight loss and exercise interventions in postmenopausal women on adiponectin and leptin levels. Journal of Internal Medicine, 274(2), 163-175.

Berg, D. H. (2001). The Power of a Playful Spirit at Work. Journal for Quality & Participation, 24(2), 57-62.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Everett, A. (2011). Benefits and challenges of fun in the workplace. Library Leadership and Management, 25(1), 1-10.

Kansal, M., Puja, & Maheshwari, G. (2012). Incorporation of fun and enjoyment in work: Builds the way for success and generation of long term benefits. ZENITH International Journal of Business Economics & Management Research, (12), 98-113.

Karl, K., & Peluchette, J. (2006). How does workplace fun impact employee perceptions of customer service quality?. Journal Of Leadership & Organizational Studies, (2), 2-11.

Kim, S., Kim, Y., Kim, H., Lee, S., & Yu, S. (2012). The Effect of Laughter Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Patients with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy (CP). Quality Of Life Research, 20, 84.

Koelsch, S., Boehlig, A., Hohenadel, M., Nitsche, I., Bauer, K. & Sack, U. (2016). The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines, and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Scientific Reports, 6doi:10.1038/srep23008

Kuiper, N., & Martin, R. (1998). Laughter and stress in daily life: Relation to positive and negative affect. Motivation and Emotion, 22(2), 133-153.

Meyer, H. (2000). Fun for everyone. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 28(2), 45-48.