I sometimes wonder why rich people often keep upping the ante, buying increasingly more expensive things. This may follow a progression I first noticed when I experienced my own slight wealth upgrade in Japan (see Peaches and Pleasure). We must innately convert any upgrade in our standard-of-living into a new bottom line in our standard-of-living. Then, never content for long, we soon seek to up the ante again. Biologically speaking, the hunter-gatherer in us reaches outward from our bottom line, driven by a kind of ‘grass is always greener’ instinct.
The short CBS news report, The science behind pleasure-seeking adds some interesting color to this natural process (or see transcript below).
The curious thing is how not all rich people do this. Warren Buffett’s life style is a good example. This report sheds light on that too, in a round about way. This report, although slanted towards the benefits of pleasure, does offer food-for-thought on why some folks pursue pleasure more than others do.
Not surprisingly, the report makes no mention of Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. Yep, revealing that would be a bummer. Especially noteworthy is how the Second Truth ends: “Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain”. Keep Buddha’s Truths in mind as you listen to this report. You can see how thinking plays such a large role in life for humans, and why Taoism speaks to its downside. As my favorite chapter 71 puts it, thinking that one knows will lead to difficulty.
Well-being is not connected to pleasure, per se. It is more like pleasure promises us well-being. No wonder Buddha called it “bait”. So why is Warren Buffett an exception to the ostentatious wealth most rich people pursue? Wealthy people who live simple lives don’t take the bait because they are content. From a symptoms point of view, the fact that wealthy people often continue to up the ante pleasure-wise proves the old cliché, ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’. They are the wealthy poor!
“Chocolate and peanuts! … mmmmm …”
“I’m a Barbie collector. I have, like, over 100 Barbies.”
“I love Mexican food!”
“The rush of cliff jumping, when you’re up in the air, and you’re hoping the water is deep enough, and your heart is beating a thousand miles an hour, and you SPLASH!”
Professor Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, notes that some pleasures are no less than a matter of survival.
“Pleasure is an instantaneous feeling of something good,” Dr. Berns said. “When you teach a bunch of undergraduates and teenagers like I do and I ask them to list the things that give them pleasure, sleep is always at the top of the list.
“You have kind of the basic needs, right? So you have food, sleep, and sex. Pretty much boils down to that, if you’re talking about actual pleasure,” Berns laughed.
“It seems like we just taste food, and taste wine, we respond to our visceral sensations. But actually it is surprisingly deep,” Bloom said.
So deep, in fact, that Bloom was pleased to write a book on pleasure, which he says is as much about our brains as about our experiences.
“Our pleasure is a response not just to the physical makeup of something, what it looks like or tastes like, or smells like, or feels like, but rather to our beliefs of what it really IS, what its real essence is,” Bloom said.
And boy, can we be fooled!
“Half the people are told they’re drinking cheap plunk, the other half are told they’re drinking something out of $100-$150 bottle,” Bloom said. “It tastes better to them, if they THINK they’re drinking from an expensive bottle. And it turns out that if they think they’re drinking expensive wine, parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree.”
“So if I have people over for dinner, I should add a little ‘1″ in front of the price tag, and put it on the table?” Spencer asked.
“That is the ultimate trick to making wine taste better,” Bloom said.
And it’s the sort of trick that works only on human beings.
“Both my dog and me enjoy drinking water when we’re thirsty, but I’m the one who cares about where the water came from – whether it’s bottled water, or from the tap,” Bloom said. “My dog doesn’t care.”
“You’re the one that, if we put a higher price tag on that bottle of water, you’ll enjoy it more?” suggested Spencer.
“That’s right! I might give my dog premium dog food, but the dog doesn’t care that I spent a lot of money for it.”
People, on the other hand, seem to get ENORMOUS pleasure out of spending ENORMOUS sums on some very curious things.
Was Michael Jackson’s jacket really worth $1.8 million?
Or how about President Kennedy’s tape measure, which went for almost $50,000 at auction?
Or Eric Clapton’s guitar, snapped up for just under a million bucks?
Given all that, Paul Bloom wondered what people might pay for the pleasure of owning, say, George Clooney’s sweater?
“And the answer is, a fair amount,” said Bloom. “Much more than they’d pay for MY sweater, or for a brand new sweater.”
But why? For bragging rights? Or to re-sell on eBay? Apparently not …
Bloom conducted an experiment where people were not allowed to tell people or boast about buying Clooney’s sweater, or even re-sell it, and the perceived value was reduced. “But here’s what makes the value really drop: We told another group of subjects that we thoroughly washed it before it got to them. Now the value plummets.”
“It’s not still ‘George Clooney’s sweater’?” asked Spencer.
“As my wife put it, you washed away the Clooney cooties!” Bloom laughed. “You’ve washed away the sort of essence of the person.”
“That gives them more pleasure in owning it?”
“Human beings are strange,” laughed Spencer.
“Human beings are extraordinary,” he replied.
Some pleasures are universal, like eating the mouth-watering butter-and-sugar concoctions at Magnolia Bakery in New York City – it really is pure pleasure on a plate.
But not all of life’s pleasures are so straight-forward. In fact, if you think about it, some of them are downright weird.
“Cheese is spoiled milk, it smells bad,” said psychologist Paul Rozin. “But the point is that we get great pleasure out of it. And some people love the stinky cheeses. And part of the pleasure of eating them is that they really smell bad, but they’re good!”
Rozin’s studies go well beyond the pleasures of the disgusting, to the joy of the downright painful. Take hot chili peppers …
“Well, hot chili peppers are eaten by over two billion people in the world,” Rozin said. “And yet, this is an innately negative experience. Little babies don’t like it. So, the question to me was, why would anybody put in their mouth something that produces a pain signal from the mouth to the brain?”
His answer? What he calls “benign masochism” – the same human quirk that explains why we enjoy horror movies that terrify us … why we like sad songs that make us cry.
“It’s a sense of your mind over your body,” Rozin said. “Your body is saying, ‘Bad news, get out of here!’ Your mind knows, ‘I’m actually not in danger. I’m mastering this negative experience, and my mastery of it gives me pleasure.'”
But there are limits. Just ask those chili pepper people…
“What happens is the one that people like best tends to be the one that’s just below the level they can’t bear,” Rozin laughed. “In other words, they’re pushing the limit of how hot they can stand it. Similarly with roller coasters. People who love roller coasters will like the steepest and scariest one they can stand.”
Push your pleasure to that limit and – odd as it seems – odds are you’ll want more. So what’s the best strategy to maximize life’s pleasures?
Emory Professor Gregory Berns did an experiment that offers a clue: When he gave subjects alternating drops of water and juice, their brain activity showed they preferred the juice. No surprise. But when the juice came at unexpected intervals and was a surprise, they liked it even more.
His advice: Plan surprises.
“You have to take risks, I think, to really experience pleasure,” Dr. Berns said. “And there’s, you know, there’s a reason why people say the first time is always the best. The first time you experience something, whether it’s your first kiss, your first bite of sushi, whatever you like, it’s always the best, it’s always the most memorable.”
So whether it’s Clooney’s sweater … roller coasters … chili peppers … or something else entirely (“Chocolate” … “good friend, good beer” …), treasure those pleasures.
But remember: There’s always room for something new – and people keep pushing the envelope, like bungee jumping.
“Yeah, why not?” said Dr. Berns.
For more on this, see “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like” by Paul Bloom (W.W. Norton)