Consuming Happiness

Not this supermarket, not my dog.

When I started going to my local supermarket (this was a few years ago), I had only the vaguest sensation that along with the bread and milk I brought home a mood. As the supermarket geography became more familiar (“Wo findet man Essig und Zucker bitte?”), interactions with staff became clearer. Some interactions were sweet, and some were sour. The sourness was acceptable. Working there can’t be easy. The shelf stackers hurry and the checkouts are designed for discomfort.

Over time I recognised that the interactions were consistent. And the consistency wasn’t related to where I met the member of staff, or what time of day it was. Nope: each member of staff had a consistent mood. This surprised me. They were doing the same job, but some were always be happy and some were always not. There was The Sour One with the rasped voice, who never seems to entirely present. The Beleaguered One, eternally set upon and in complaint. And there is The Happy One, who sometimes literally wears flowers in her hair. It feels very reductive to name them so, but so they have been.

I imagine that The Happy One ‘sees’ me more than the others. And that she likes me more than they do. This is on no evidence. Maybe she does, as her happiness makes her more open to seeing and liking everyone. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my attraction to her mood.

Once I had recognised these traits, it affected my behaviour. When more than one till is open, I don’t look for the shortest line. I check instead for the happiest check out person. I feel much better waiting an extra two minutes to pick up a smile on the way out. In fact, that waiting becomes pleasurable, as it ends in a reward.

The persistence of mood is an odd feature in a society convinced that we can make ourselves happier. Doing more, buying more, and having more are equated with life satisfaction. By contrast, the ‘set-point theory of happiness’ suggests that our sense of well-being is determined early by heredity and personality traits, and remains fairly constant afterwards 1.  This theory is supported by a classic study by Brickman et al. (1978) which suggests that participants who either won the lottery or ended up in a wheel chair returned fairly closely to a baseline level of happiness 2. The set-point theory of happiness can be interpreted positively (as resilience) or negatively (“… trying to become happier may be as futile as trying to become taller…” 3). Either way, it contradicts the idea that my mood is a response to external events.

Or to be more specific, it contradicts the idea that over the long term my mood is a response to financial or physical health. My short term mood may still be influenced by how other people are feeling. Recognising this ‘contagion’, while shopping I wish to consort with the happiest. But what ‘infection’ do I provide for others 4? Do I share happiness, or only take it from those who already have it? In the setting of the supermarket, do I see myself as only a consumer of mood? The question gives me a shudder. Do I really want to know?

  2. Contrary to popular report, the wheelchair users they didn’t end up at the same level of happiness as the lottery winners, but it was much closer than their conditions would suggest.
  3. Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7,186 –189
  4. The poem containing Robert Burns’ appeal, that we see ourselves as others see us, is titled, “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”. The Lady isn’t as immaculate as she imagines. It’s a colorful variant of the dust in my eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

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