XVIII.1 January + February 2011
Page: 11
Digital Citation

BETWEEN THE LINES What we talk about when we talk about happiness

Liz Danzico

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My lists are shrinking. Not my to-do lists, unfortunately. Rather, my lists of resolutions. I recently had the opportunity to collect all of my New Year's resolution lists in one place and noticed a trend. Lists from a decade ago or more had upwards of three dozen items, many of which were objects—books, game consoles, music players. Recent lists, however, were only a few items long: Take more vacations. Spend more time with my family. Do more meaningful work. Exercise more consistently. These were lists of experiences.

As I compare years' worth of historical resolution lists, this difference is striking. I have a single-track mind for experiences that might make me happy over the course of a year.

back to top  The Happiness Experience

The prevalence of recent studies might indicate there's a growing trend in our interest in happiness. Chances are good that if you've recently opened a news reader, a newspaper, or a certain bestseller, you've seen headlines on the state of happiness. How can we be happier? Can we design our own happiness? Is happiness a do-it-yourself pursuit? My lists may be shrinking for an entirely good reason: Investing in experiences over objects amplifies happiness. Money, as it turns out, can't buy happiness.

As designers we spend a great deal of time considering which brands consumers consider (and even that's a cultural distinction). Findings show that spending money on experiences over material goods leads to longer-term satisfaction. Moreover, spending money on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. In 2008, for instance, at the downturn of the economy, Wal-Mart noticed a stay-cation trend and started grouping items in its stores to transform any space into a "vacation." No longer just selling objects like grills and tents, it was selling entire experiences—barbecue foods, inflatable pools, and outdoor furniture at a reduced price. By focusing on the larger story, it was able to focus its design and make a larger impact by creating an entire vacation rather than providing just the pieces. Assuming a consumer's goal (vacation) was aligned with the outcome (purchase), his or her ultimate happiness had more of an opportunity to flourish.

Experiences—those that we have the potential to create opportunities for—can amplify happiness. While we can not predict or control what people will or will not do, we can create potential.

back to top  Peaks and Stories

When we design the potential for happy experiences, are we certain it's happiness? Have our users asked to be happy? Adam Phillips suggests what we truly want is to feel frustrated, and happiness is a preemptive strike against frustration. It's more of a refuge than a transformation.

Even if the entire experience isn't a good one, people may not remember it. Founder of behavioral economics and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's research reports on the "peak-end" rule that shows what we remember about the pleasurable quality of an experience is determined almost entirely by two things: 1. how we feel when experiences are at their peak, and 2. how we feel when experiences have ended [1]. We rely on these two-part summaries to remind us of how we felt about experiences. The summary is the one we remember. We're taking happiness shortcuts.

As designers it's important to note that what matters far more is the intensity at the peak combined with how people feel at the end, rather than the overall average of the experience. In a talk, Kahneman reveals the difference between our "experiencing self" and our "remembering self." Getting confused between them is part of what is confounding about how we invest in happiness because our "remembering self is a storyteller and that starts with the basic response of our memory. We don't [actually] set out to tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories. That is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story" [2]. Whatever our craft, whether it be book cover design or toothbrushes or websites, we might benefit from considering the narrative that emerges from the experience.

back to top  On Being Ordinary

But it's not just peaks and stories. In his paper "On Doing 'Being Ordinary,'" Harvey Sacks analyzed conversation to explore the mechanics of discourse. In doing so, he uncovered ordinariness is a crucial part of everyday conversation. He found what was remarkable about discourse was that it was primarily unremarkable. The very fact that things are ordinary and unremarkable allows the unordinary to stand out. Paul Dourish, in his 2003 landmark paper "What We Talk About When We Talk About Context," cites the example, "I saw an accident on my way to the bank this morning." Without the routine of otherwise ordinary events and conversation as a backdrop, it would not be possible to distinguish this solitary one as extraordinary. The ordinary has extraordinary value in isolating meaningful experiences [3].

back to top  Happiness in the Wild

Mappiness (, part of a research project at the London School of Economics, maps happiness across space. The researchers intend to better understand how people's feelings are affected by features of their environment—from pollution to noise to green spaces—while they're doing ordinary things. They hope to publish the research; meanwhile, users who download it can enter data that is charted for them hour by hour over time so that they can visually monitor their own happiness.

But sometimes experiences are anything but ordinary. Often referred to as the "Indiana Jones of happiness research," Robert Biswas-Diener combines wanderlust with an interest in psychology and the study of happiness. With happiness research running in the family (his father is happiness guru Ed Diener), he and other scientists are using the research he's collecting (from Greenland to Indonesia to Africa) to understand how the intersection of culture, health, age, and material differences can affect a person's happiness. He's using the research to create a happiness film, forthcoming.

Why is happiness research suddenly so much on the forefront? From the Happiness Project to the ROI of its emotional efficacy, it seems there's no better time for designers to consider whether or not it is indeed something to be considered. Perhaps, as Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing consulting firm that works with manufacturers and retailers, points out, "There's been an emotional rebirth connected to acquiring things that's really come out of this recession.... We hear people talking about the desire not to lose that—that connection, the moment, the family, the experience" [4]. It's a matter of timing.

Whether as creators or simply consumers, whether you ascribe to happiness theory or the set point theory of happiness, as another year begins, don't forget to plan a vacation, take time off—even just a day or an afternoon. One thing is certain: You may only remember the peak-end. If nothing else, pause and talk about happiness, if only to consider its implications for design, or to dispute it.

back to top  References

1. Bennett, D. The Best Vacation Ever. Boston. com, June 20, 2010;

2. Kahneman, D. The Rddle of Experience vs. Memory. TedTalks,, March 2010;

3. Dourish, P. What we talk about when we talk about context. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 8, 1 (2004), 19–30.

4. Rosenbloom, S. But will it make you happy? New York Times, Aug. 7, 2010;

back to top  Author

Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and cofounder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts and an independent consultant in New York, on the editorial board for Rosenfeld Media, and on the board of Design Ignites Change. In the past, Danzico directed experience strategy for AIGA and the information architecture teams at Barnes & and Razorfish New York. She lectures widely and writes at

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©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0100  $10.00

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