Tag Archives: Dan Ariely

Food & happiness II: selling happiness

Food products can bring comfort and even happiness, I wrote last week. But let’s be more precise: some food products can bring some moments of happiness. And marketers are happy to try and make us believe that its exactly their products that bring us closer to what we are longing for: happiness.

I am do not know a lot about the history of marketing, but I came across an interesting blog post by Bruce Bradley. He claiming that the way that marketers have sold their products changed over the duration of the 20th century. Whilst initially, Coca Cola advertised their products with its features (‘delicious, refreshing’), they have  gradually moved up in their claims. In the 1930s, the perceived product benefits (superior qualities, ‘America’s favourite moment’) were used to sell coke. In the 1950s, Coca Cola rewarded consumers on an individual and personal level for choosing their products (‘the sign of good taste’). And more recently, it’s about emotional benefits: ‘open happiness’.


Source: Bruce Bradley (www.brucebradley.com)

Happiness: the highest value to sell?

Nowadays, brands do not communicate the product itself as such, but promote it by linking it to higher values. Happiness probably is the highest value that we can aspire to. If not happiness, what is it in life that we are searching for? Indeed, it’s impressive how consistently marketers across different brands and food products are ‘selling happiness’. Some examples beyond Coca Cola:

  • The most famous of all: McDonalds’ ‘Happy Meal’ .
  • Unilever’s ice cream brand (Ola in Belgium, going by other names in other markets) claims that ‘ice cream makes u happy’
  • Coffee producer Illy invites you to ‘live happILLY’
  • In the US, Lay’s did a campaign around ‘happiness exhibit’, asking people to send it happy photo’s.
  • Also well-known: Coca cola did a campaign with the slogans ‘share happiness’ and ‘open happiness’

Basically, I’d eat myself into obesity from all the fat and sugar in all these products before I become happy! And if I finish binge-eating a bag of Lays or a bucket of Ola ice cream, I feel guilty and sad rather than happy.Of course there is no sense in any of the claims. By associations themselves with happiness as a virtue, happiness marketers try to communicate something bigger than their products. The claims aren’t only insensible, they are also potentially dangerous for public health. Maybe the commercial should come with a sort of disclaimer, similar to alcohol or tobacco: happiness effects not proven.
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It’s the act of cooking that increases happiness

Ultimately I believe that it is not so much the act of consuming, but the act of producing that gives food the magic that is associated withs happiness effects. Baking is one – although by no means the only – example. Human beings are creators. We want to make something new and claim it as ours. A home-made cake almost always tastes better than one from the supermarket.

Dan Ariely, already mentioned earlier on the blog, calls this ‘the IKEA effect’: we value things more when they are ours. A great example is the cake mixes that were being sold from the 1950s. The first cakes mixes required nothing but the addition of water. They sold very badly. The producers than changed one thing: they took out eggs and milks from the mix. Sales went up from this point: housewives felt that they had contributed to the product and  could claim the cake as ‘theirs’.

Happiness is made with our own hands

In the 21st century, so many people working behind a computer produce nothing concrete. The output they generate is in data, text and numbers. There is nothing tangible. Doing something physical, like baking a cake from scratch, weeding the garden, or creating your own painting allows you to show something real and tangible as your product. Spending time on baking your bread, cup cakes or biscuits is a ‘pill-less prozac’, claims a UK campaign group citing research associating baking with lower mental health issues. Happiness doesn’t come out of a bag of crisps or a bottle with a famous logo on it. It comes from what we do with our hands.

Mojitos, Lego and Beyond: Work and Motivation

Is there more to work than a means to pay for your mojitos?

Post-modern times require us to have complex skills in order to do our jobs well. This also influences how we feel about work in general: it is not just about making a living but also a way of self-realisation and a potential source to bring flow, meaning and happiness to our lives. TED speakers Dan Ariely and Dan Pink share their thoughts with us on the question: what motivates us to work?

Work and motivation

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is a behavioural psychologist who is on his way to becoming a TED star. His talks on irrationality, loss aversion and dishonesty have been watched by millions. Two years ago, in 2012, he was a TEDxAmsterdam guest in De Stadsschouwburg.

This time, he chose a different topic: work and motivation. Ariely discards the simple theory that most people only work in order to spend their money on mojitos while sitting on a beach. Beyond mojitos, what motivates people to care about their jobs? According to Ariely, meaning and creation are the main motivators.


Ariely tells us the story of one of his former students who used to work for an investment bank. For weeks and weeks he worked on a presentation for an important business deal. He worked overtime, did the research and put together a slick powerpoint presentation. He delivered a stellar job and received the well-earned appreciation by his boss he was looking for. Then, things changed: he learnt that the deal was off and that the presentation wouldn’t be used after all. This news was such a disappointment to him that it took away all of his motivation to work (even though his work was beyond his boss’s expectations). As a researcher, Ariely’s job is to translate similar anecdotes and theories into experiments. In this case, he came up with an experiment to test the effect of demotivation on performance. Being a Lego lover, he thought Lego robots would bring him closer to the answer.

Ariely paid two groups of research subjects to build bionicles – a type of Lego robot. The standard condition comprised of presenting the robots built by the first group. But in the ‘Sisyphic condition’, the robots were destroyed in the presence of the subjects just after they finished building them. The result: any motivation to build the robots was crushed. Even those who stated they loved Lego, actually built very few of them.

The IKEA effect

It is not surprising that meaning and purpose are an important part of our motivation at work. Creating something that is yours is another source of motivation. Or in Ariely’s words: the IKEA effect. If you spend a number of hours assembling your own IKEA furniture, it’s very likely that you will be more attached to it: labour leads to appreciation. Children are another example. You may experience other people’s children as horrible creatures. But when they’re yours, you have already invested so much time and energy that they have become valuable to you. Ariely informs us that this effect has also been studied in experiments involving origami figures made by the subjects themselves.

Dan Pink

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has formulated his own answer to the question of motivation. He argues that in the current business climate, staff management is no longer suitable for the 21st century employee. Our jobs today require a specific set of skills. We do not live in a time anymore where a task is simply being executed as ordered. As the content of our jobs has changed over time, our management has to change, too.

Engagement can be reached with the help of three factors, says Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We have the urge to be the director of our own lives, both in our private lives as well as in our jobs. We want to become increasingly better at what we do and we yearn to be part of something more meaningful, something larger than ourselves.

Thus, Dan Pink argues, our working cultures should be redesigned. We should build more (software) companies like Atlassian, where people have ‘Fedex days’, giving them 24 hour to solve a problem posed by themselves. Or, we should learn from radical reformers like Google, where engineers can spend 20% of their working time on projects they believe are important. Or we can work via the ‘ROWE’ (Results Only Work Environment) eliminating fixed working hours and meetings.

Challenge is what drives motivation. And companies can do so much more to create that challenge.

This article was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’. In this series, I explore some of the about fifty talks on happiness in TED’s library.

With great thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.

A happiness bookshelf

I’ve spent most of last weekend moving houses: carrying boxes with all my material needs up to the second floor, assembling my new friendly Swedish couch/bed/chaise longue combination, and wondering what to pick amongst the antique gems of Les Petits Riens.

When most of the work was done and my helper had left, I had an important decision to make. With so many boxes and bags spread over my apartment, and so many things to sort out, where would I start? I chose that my first priority would be to organise about a dozen of boxes with books.

Books can be organised in many ways. I started separating fiction from non-fiction, and after that by language and by author. For the novels, this was fine, but how do you this for non-fiction? Can a language course or travel guide be next to my scientific books from university? Can I mix the category history with popular scientific books?


Anyway, at some point during the categorising process, a great idea sprung into my mind. Why wouldn’t I dedicate one shelf to books that are in one way or another related to happiness? So far there are seven (from Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow, and from the Lonely Planet for Bhutan to Dan Ariely’s books on irrationality; also see our page For a read of happiness, grouping all reading material). Despite a general surplus of books, this is the one part in my collection I should be allowed to expand. Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a new science and the biography of Robert F. Kennedy  are next on my list.

This is just a story of how I spent my Saturday evening, but there is also a broader meaning. The way you structure your life, affects the way you looks around and behave in the world. We shape our own lives through the shape we give through our environment. Ever since I started working on finance, I start seeing banks everywhere (occasionally, I wonder about their balance sheets, too).

In the same way, my hope is that having this happiness bookshelf helps to make my apartment a happy place.