The Problem with Money

New York Times best-selling author Daniel Ariely is one of the most incandescently smart and entertaining academics anywhere. He’s got degrees in physics and mathematics and PhD.s in Psychology and Business. His research has illuminated everything from how to price healthy Chinese food (make the servings 20 percent smaller, charge slightly more and market it as the “skinny” option) to making yourself more attractive in bars (recruit a less attractive sidekick). His new book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic that Shapes Our Motivation, takes a fresh look at motivation. Here, we ask Dan to explain more and help us harness principles of motivation to live longer, better.


  1. What is the pleasure principle?

The pleasure principle is the idea that what makes us happy are things that give us momentary pleasure. When you ask people about pleasure they say things like, “I want to sit on the beach drinking mojitos.” The interesting thing is if you look at the things that are worthwhile over a long period of time, they are rarely the same. So, if you ask people what they have done that gave them real pleasure, people rarely say, “I sat for a whole month on the beach drinking while I watched [TV] for three years.” They say things like, “I ran a marathon,” or “I wrote a book,” or “I learned something new.”

Take the marathon, for example: When you take pictures of people who run the marathon they don’t look like they are having fun. In fact, they look like somebody punished them. Where is the pleasure there? The pleasure is not from short-term, momentary pleasure; the pleasure comes from being able to have a challenge and to overcome it and to triumph. Short-term pleasure is fun to have a little bit, but if you try to have a lot of it you actually don’t have true pleasure.


  1. Why are long-term pleasures better than the sum of many short-term pleasures?

Imagine what gives us momentary happiness and take the example of going to a comedy show. Ask yourself if you want to spend your life like that, continuously watching comedy for 30 years. The answer is no. Imagine that you have a day-to-day relationship with your significant other where every day you wake up in the morning, you look lovingly into each other’s eyes, and you ask, “Honey, should we continue with this for another day or not?” And then, every day you make decisions to just continue for one more day. What happens is that you will invest nothing in the relationship.

But, if you make a commitment to stay together for a while, it could be a lifetime, but if you make a commitment for that then there’s a chance that you will take the long-term perspective and actually be happier. Short-term happiness is about playing, laughing, or being tickled, whereas long-term happiness integrates a sense of meaning, accomplishment, or personal improvement. Climbing a mountain, having kids, writing a book – these things don’t happen quickly and they often take a really long time to develop. It’s because they take a long time that they give such an important meaning to life.


  1. How does contribution motivate people?

The cynical answer is that we love ourselves and because we love ourselves, we love everything that is related to us. When we contribute to something it becomes part of us and we love it more. Of course, there is truth to it, but the deeper perspective is that we are searching for impact; we are searching for meaning. When we wake up in the morning, if we are contributing in a way that will have no impact on anybody and is disconnected from us, it’s not very motivating. But if we wake up in the morning and we have a chance to do something that would help other people we’ve been agents in change, that’s very motivating. It is about us, but it is also about our deep desire to have an impact on something larger than ourselves and bring meaning to our lives.


  1. What are some counterintuitive ways we can motivate people?

Sometimes when we pay people it’s actually demotivating rather than motivating. For example, if you think about something like the No Child Left Behind policy, we took teachers who were committed to education, the next generation, and we said, “There is this one test that we care about at the end of the grade, that’s the only thing we care about and you’ll get a small amount of money if the kids you teach do better on this test.” What we’ve done is actually decrease overall motivation. Lack of acknowledgement, lack of autonomy, and even payment can demotivate.

True motivation comes from a long relationship with a company, it comes from giving people credit, acknowledgement, giving people autonomy, getting people to feel that what they are doing is important and that they are not just pawns. That’s maybe the most important thing is as we move forward and we depend more and more on people’s good will.


  1. What are the best ways to motivate people to eat healthy?

One approach is to create a habit around it. If you are used to cooking vegetables then that’s what you eat. Another is convenience. If we have healthier options on the countertop, we’ll eat healthier. If what we keep in the refrigerator is healthy, we’ll eat healthy. If we have the healthy options hidden behind things or in the crisper drawer and we don’t bend down to open it, then it lowers the odds we will eat something healthy. Involve something that is of a higher order than habit and convenience. If you think that recycling is connected to a high order principle, like “Good people recycle,” or “It’s important for the future of the planet,” all of a sudden you are not thinking about each decision separately, but you are creating an ideology around healthy living.


  1. How do bad decisions lead to an early death?

The simple answer is something like texting and driving, where one bad decision leads to mortality. Less obvious decisions are things like not washing our hands. About 100 thousand people or more die every year in hospitals because of infections that could have been avoided if people washed their hands. Then, there is another type of decision, which is really a group of decisions. Unlike texting and driving or driving drunk, where one decision kills us, it’s a lot of small decisions that kill us. For example not exercising, eating too much, smoking, etc. It’s not as if one cigarette will kill us, it’s the stream of cigarettes that could accelerate death.


  1. You have this notion of reward substitution. Can we use this idea to get healthier?

Reward substitution is all about the idea that things that are happening in the long term are just not as motivating. Being healthy, saving for retirement, and raising kids are all a long game. So what do we do? We find something that is closer in time, ideally something that can happen right now, but is somehow linked to that overarching delayed goal. For example, we try to reach 10,000 steps to get points and we do it for the points, but it leads to our health. We try to get a streak of exercising everyday this week, and we are motivated by the streak, or by the continuous nature of this activity. In the process, we exercise.


  1. How can you set up your home environment to favor health and happiness?

Figure out how to return to family meals without TV, iPods and phones. This can include where the TV is placed in your home, and the rules that surround phone use and iPods at the dinner table. Learn to enjoy cooking. Everybody can learn to enjoy it, we just need a bit of time and a bit of practice to learn how to do it and enjoy the process. Sleep is important both for health and happiness. You should go to sleep at a cooler temperature, about 71 degrees. When you go to sleep in cooler temperatures, you fall asleep faster and REM sleep starts earlier, which is the most important sleep for us.


  1. How can we set up our environment for greater happiness?

One thing that worries me is that we often go for the things that are momentarily pleasurable, rather than things that give us meaning in the long term. Let’s say you want to write a book, it will take you 1,000 hours over the next three years, but you also want to drink some alcohol. Every night you can achieve the drinking alcohol part. You can also make progress with the book, but sometimes it will be disappointing. We often pick the things that allow us some easy reward in a short term, even though it’s a lower reward in the long term. Most people would have preferred to write a book than to go out every night after the kids go to sleep, but what happens is that in our pursuit of short-term happiness we are actually sacrificing the long-term happiness.


The views and links offered in outside content from experts and thought leaders are not necessarily the views of Blue Zones, LLC, Blue Zones Project or any of our partners and should not be a substitute for consultation with medical professionals.

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