Sharing One Secret to Happiness

Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes people happy. He shares one of the secrets he has uncovered. Gilbert is the author of the new book Stumbling on Happiness.

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You may have heard the old chestnut that variety is the spice of life. Well Harvard psychology professor and commentator Daniel Gilbert has actually thought a lot about how the quest for new experiences affects people's sense of their own wellbeing and he says searching for variety can sometimes have hidden costs. So beware.

DANIEL GILBERT: Maybe it's because I'm a psychology professor or maybe it's because I wrote a book on happiness. But at least twice a week, someone asks me for the secret of happiness, which they evidently think I know but have been keeping to myself. They're surprised when I tell them that the secret of happiness is fresh tortillas and raw jalapeños for breakfast every Sunday.

I moved to Massachusetts from Texas about a decade ago and the New Englanders who asked me this question are surprised to learn that anyone actually eats raw jalapeños and much less for breakfast. But, what surprises them isn't what I eat but that I eat the same thing every Sunday. Jalapeños may be the spice of Texas, but don't I know that variety is the spice of life? Of course I do. But I also know that variety has costs.

First, variety requires choice and choice requires time. And I'd rather spend my time writing a book or tickling my granddaughter than deciding what to eat every Sunday morning. I eat the same breakfast every Sunday for the same reason that I own 15 pairs of cargo pants in just two colors. We should only want variety among things that we enjoy thinking about and I just don't get much pleasure out of thinking about my breakfast or my trousers.

But there is a second and better reason to be skeptical about variety. Human beings adapt to any pleasure that's repeated too quickly which is why the tenth bite of pancakes and syrup is never as good as the first. Variety is a trick we use to circumvent this fact. Instead of taking ten bites of pancake we take three, taste the hashbrowns, sample the sausage, sip the orange juice and then go back for another bite of pancake, which having been ignored for just a few minutes is once again delightful.

Variety is a clever way to spice up experiences, which like bites of pancake, occur in rapid succession. But the same trick backfires when we use it to spice up experiences that are separated by weeks rather than by seconds. My wife sings Happy Birthday to me exactly once a year so I never get tired of hearing it. If just for the sake of variety she were to switch to the National Anthem, I'd be less happy, not more.

Valentine's Day is hearts and flowers. New Year's Eve is champagne and paper hats and anyone who thinks these holidays would benefit from an infusion of variety is simply missing the point.

Variety improves the things that we do too often, but it rules the things that we don't do often enough. I have Sunday breakfast just once a week and it would make me far less happy if just for the sake of variety I occasionally substituted a bowl of New England oatmeal for a plate of those little green jewels filled with the glorious fire no Yankee can comprehend.

The secret of happiness is variety, but the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.

SIEGEL: Daniel Gilbert is the author of STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS. He's a psychological professor at Harvard University.

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