The joy of unwrapping: notes from a researcher in happiness

Novelty is tempting, but don't replace the good with the new says MU Vienna's researcher in happiness Ivo Ponocny


By Dr Ivo Ponocny
Dean of the PhD in Business and Socioeconomic Sciences at MODUL University Vienna


For many the whole Christmas season builds up to the moment of giving and unwrapping presents. Unwrapping is, for most of us, an integral part of the celebration.

We wrap presents for no other reason than for the joy of unwrapping them again. If we were to ask the general public about their favorite parts of the Christmas experience, opening presents would rank even higher than owning the gifts afterwards. The pleasure curve related to most gifts drops quite quickly. The unpacking and receiving of gifts seems in most cases the most anticipated part. Why is this the case? Why do we perform this objectively pointless task each year? Science says it’s more than just tradition and triggers a fundamental part of our nature.

We are programmed to react to change. You probably can’t tell how warm it is at the moment, but you would immediately be able to detect a cool breeze coming in. When things get slightly better, we cheer up, when things don’t go our way we are disappointed – this is noticed and appraised immediately. The improvement itself is what counts, rather than to which emotional state it takes us. A classic experiment in happiness research produced a noticeable increase in life satisfaction ratings by letting participants find a small coin on a copying machine. (For those who like calculus, some even interpret happiness as the first derivative of life satisfaction, i.e. the momentary change rate).

We need novelty, and there is nothing bad in celebrating new things and relishing anticipation. But in this pursuit of constant positive change we often lose sight of the implications or our choices. Animal sanctuaries for example, know only too well how soon we can come become bored or overwhelmed with the responsibility of owning a pet once the novelty has worn off.

In general, science claims that human beings are terrible affective forecasters, we cannot reliably predict how we will feel in another emotional state. The amount of satisfaction from having something is difficult to predict whilst we are craving for that thing. Have you ever seen the results of buying food whilst hungry?

On the other hand, novelty is good for us. We need to be stimulated, we need innovation and the magic of new things. Never stop bringing novelty into your life. I love the moment so much when some of our international students at MU experience snow for the first time – they laugh, they shout, they take photos, they throw snowballs and build snowmen like little kids. They are even excited about the frostiness on their bare hands and happily expose themselves to the season so many people hate. Long after the snow has melted the memory remains.

Do not mistake the pleasure of novelty for the lasting experience. Do not replace the good with the new. Otherwise you will get caught in an everlasting cycle of greed, disappointment and always wanting more. You will also be wasting our planet’s precious resources in the process.

This Holiday season enjoy what people give to you, as well as what you give to others. Experience the new and the good in balance. This is the real challenge.


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