Success, in the Western world, means “gaining time,” according to French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. The faster we do things — work, eat, sleep, read — the more time we “gain.”
But this focus on time efficiency could be making the small things in life harder to enjoy.
A trio of Canadian researchers have discovered that simply being exposed to symbols of Western society’s culture of convenience can undermine people’s ability to find pleasure in everyday joys.
“It is ironic that technologies designed to improve well-being by minimizing time spent on mundane chores may ultimately undermine the surplus leisure time they permit. By instigating a sense of impatience, these technologies may prevent people from savoring the enjoyable moments life offers serendipitously,” doctoral student Julian House and professors Sanford E. DeVoe and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto wrote in the study.
The research, published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found people exposed to fast-food symbols were less likely to find pleasure in beautiful pictures and music. The research also found those living in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants were less likely to savor pleasurable experiences.
House and his colleagues decided to examine fast food — and McDonald’s in particular — because it “has arguably become the ultimate symbol of time efficiency.”
In their first analysis, which included 280 participants from the United States, the researchers found greater fast-food concentration in one’s neighborhood was associated with reduced savoring of emotional responses to enjoyable experiences. The researchers controlled for age and wealth, but noted that other confounding variables could have skewed their results.
In a second experiment, the researchers had 250 participants rate the advertising suitability of five promotional pictures. Three of the images were neutral, while two of the images showed fast food from McDonald’s. Half of the participants saw the fast food in standard McDonald’s packaging, while those in the control group saw the exact same food with generic ceramic tableware.
In addition, half of the participants viewed ten pictures of scenic natural beauty while the others did not. All of the participants then rated their happiness.
The researchers found those who viewed the beautiful pictures tended to self-report a higher level of happiness than those who had not.
But being exposed to the fast-food symbol appeared to hamper this effect. Participants who viewed the beautiful pictures and viewed the McDonald’s symbol reported a significantly lower state of happiness than those who viewed the beautiful pictures but didn’t view the McDonald’s symbol.
In a third experiment, the researchers had another 122 participants again rate five promotional pictures. Rather than view pictures of scenic natural beauty afterward, however, the participants listened to the first 86 seconds of “The Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé.
Those exposed to the McDonald’s symbol tended to report decreased positive emotional responses to the music. They also tended to say the music felt as though it had lasted for a longer time and reported being more impatient.
“Given the prevalence of fast-food symbols in our everyday environment, it is critical to better understand their influence,” House and his colleagues concluded in their study. “As a ubiquitous symbol of an impatient culture, fast food not only impacts people’s physical health but may also shape their experience of happiness in unexpected ways.”
However, the researchers also warned their findings should not be exaggerated. Like all studies, their research has limitations. They noted their research only examined “a small sampling from the universe of earthly pleasures” and “that happiness does not solely depend on savoring.” House and his colleagues hope future research will provide a fuller picture of how symbols of time efficiency impact happiness.