Study: You'll Be Happier Throwing Out That Bucket List Than Chasing It

In my motley career I have had long conversations with heads of state and Nobel Prize winners. I have hiked north of the Arctic Circle and watched humpback whales amble by while snorkeling in the tropics. I've published a book and watched the birth of my son. And it has not escaped my notice that compared to these (and other) peak experiences, most of my days are rather mousy and glum, when not twisted in anxieties as cutting as they are trivial. Such is life, as many have noted (here's just one fine example of the sentiment). So of course we chase adventure, excitement and glamor. They're a bulwark against sadness. Right? Wrong, says this paper. The emotional cost of such adventures is greater than their rewards, write the authors. Peak experiences will make you feel worse in the long run than you would have if you had stayed home.

The kind of peak experience that interests the buzz-killing authors (Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, whose paper will appear soon in the journal Psychological Science) is the kind that is rare: going into orbit, for example, or dining with the President. (They thus excuse themselves from addressing peak experiences that aren't rare, like the birth of a child, about which more later.) If you've spent time in orbit, for instance, you are unlike almost everyone else on earth, and the object of envy for millions of people. And, Cooney et al. write, "being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity." You say you don't care about being popular? Cooney et al. decided to see if that was really true.

Unable to take their undergraduate volunteers to the Clooney wedding or into orbit or into the Titanic, the authors simulated a "peak experience" as best they could. They had people watch short videos.

Each watching session involved 4 participants. They were told they'd be experiencing one of two videos, one highly rated and the other not so great. Before the experiment, each person answered the question "how do you feel right now?" by marking where s/he felt on a 100 point scale from "not very good" to "very good." Then s/he sat alone in a cubicle and watched a video. One of the four would get the fun video (an engaging scene in which a street magician entertains a happy crowd) ; the other three got the meh one (some low-budget animation).

Afterwards, the four were brought back together for a brief conversation at a table near their cubicles. Then each went back to the cubicle and answered some more questions: "how do you feel right now?" (again); and "In general, how did you feel during the interaction that took place?"; and how excluded did you feel during the conversation with the others? The experiment put 17 of these four-member panels through the process.

Who felt worse after their conversation with the others in their group? It turned out to be the people who'd had the better video (on the 100-point scale, their answer to "how do you feel right now?" averaged 53.26, where the blah-video-viewers averaged at 64.37). Moreover, the "lucky" viewers felt far more excluded (average just over 80 on the 100-point scale, versus 51 for the "ordinary experiencers"). A statistical analysis of the before and after results stongly suggests that the feeling of exclusion was in fact the reason those people felt worse.

In a second experiment, Cooney et al. repeated the procedure but also asked their volunteers to predict ahead of time how they would feel. People expected to feel better if they got the superior video, both before and after the conversation with others. In other words, people had unrealistic expectations: They didn't understand that they'd feel worse after having the better experience. Finally, a third experiment asked volunteers to make predictions about how others would feel. (The idea was to eliminate the possibility that people are realistic in general but delusional about themselves—"the general rule is disappointment but I will be the exception.") Again, they found the same pattern of false expectation. Their volunteers expected that having a better experience would leave the lucky people feeling better than the peons who had to watch the dull video. But the reality was that, again, those who had had the "better" experience felt worse, after their conversation with others.

In all three experiments, it seems, the volunteers were subject to the same delusion that Cass Sunstein describes in this amusing column about bragging. When we brag, according to this paper, which Sunstein quotes, we fail to anticipate that other people will not share our emotions. Similarly, the people in Cooney et al.'s study didn't anticipate that people who didn't share their experience would feel differently about it—and then leave them out in the cold because of that difference.

The point here, Cooney et al. say, is that there is a tension between two kinds of rush. One kind —"the cool tingle of Dom Pérignon or the hot snarl of a new Maserati"—is fun in and of itself (at least until we get used to it, as we quickly do). The other sort of pleasure (like, I'd say, attending a wedding, watching sports, throwing a dinner party) is inherently social. The whole point of doing it is doing it with others.

The quest for the first kind of experience demands that you do something few others have ever done; the other demands that you be like everyone else. If you've kayaked all the way around Iceland you really don't want Carnival Lines setting up stations everywhere so that any nincompoop can do it. On the other hand, at your high school graduation you are devoutly hoping for an experience that is much like everyone else's. By failing to distinguish between these two types of pleasure, we mistakenly think that the first type of experience is the same as the second. And we'll be surprised when people who haven't driven the Maserati make us feel bad about that experience.

A couple of caveats need to be caveated here. The first is that watching a neat video (versus watching a dull one) is really not the same contrast as going into orbit (versus riding the F train to your office). The authors neatly finesse this by writing "experiences need not be all that extraordinary to have unfortunate consequence" that they describe. OK, but it may be that the impact of a really extraordinary experience on the peasants is more positive. Yes, if you tell your inane story about meeting Harrison Ford, I'll be annoyed. But if you tell me you have been in orbit around the Earth, I am more inclined to ask about what that was like than I am to hate you. I think. Maybe. Moreover, many peaks of experience don't involve the sort of recreational fooling around that the authors describe. We ordinary lunkheads may well resent someone who has gone into orbit as a lark. I doubt we'd feel that way about a professional astronaut and her adventures.

Secondly, I wonder about the way the authors have neatly separated peak experiences from social ones, and insisted that "peak" means "rare." I don't know about you, but it seems to me many of my life's most amazing experiences were amazing because they happened to me, not because they were objectively rare. The birth of my son tops my list, which would also include getting married, surviving a potentially fatal accident, winning some competitions, and assorted other adventures. Even the social events on this list had an intensely personal, just-for-me aspect. Being the point of the wedding is not the same as being a guest at the wedding. Even lying around in the park with a girlfriend or boyfriend is a tremendous peak experience if you happen to be 14.

How do these common-for-the-population-but-special-for-the-individual events fit into the researchers' taxonomy? At first blush you would think they fall into the "mundane and social" category, but they don't—some (like childbirth) are not social events, and others (like a wedding or graduation) are mundane only to those outside the experience. True, we tend to get surly if we hear that someone has tried to make a mundane event into a super-rare one (didn't you cringe when you heard Jay-Z and Beyoncé had taken over an entire hospital floor for one newborn?). But there's still an unexplored realm, it seems to me, of experiences that are both ordinary (for the population) but peak (for the individual).

In any event, these experiments do seem to offer an explanation for a common and seemingly inexplicable fact: Much of what people post on social networks is extremely banal. Why do people flood Facebook with pictures of dinner, cats, kids, neighbors? Why don't they save social media for announcements that they're running for Congress or are spending October at the summit of Mount McKinley or something? Perhaps they have an instinctive feel for the contrast that Cooney et al. have explored here—a social hunch that says it's better to talk up the kind of day we all share rather than the kind the rest of us can never hope to see.

Cooney, G., Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2014). The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614551372

Illustration: God speaks to Moses through a burning bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, via Wikimedia. About Moses' next day, occupied with the usual problems of headgear maintenance and missing sheep, the scriptures are silent.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.