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Once-In-a-Lifetime Experiences Are Both Joyous and Depressing

By Carl Engelking
Oct 14, 2014 11:13 PMNov 20, 2019 12:50 AM


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Skydiving, winning a sexy sports car or scaling Mt. Everest sure sound like extraordinary experiences that would fill us with boundless joy to last a lifetime. But a new study finds that's not always so: extraordinary experiences can actually generate unhappy feelings as well, because others in your ordinary social group are unable to relate to your stories.

Extraordinarily Isolated

To test the effect of extraordinary experiences on social dynamics, researchers set up a simple experiment. They recruited 68 men and women for the study, and subdivided them into four-person groups. Within each group, one person — the extraordinary experiencer — saw a 10-minute movie of a captivating street performer, while the other three people — ordinary experiencers — watched a low-budget, boring animation of the same length. After the movies were completed, the group reconvened in a room and researchers told them to have an unstructured conversation. Predictably, people talked about the movies they just watched. Prior to watching their videos, each participant had rated how happy they felt. Both the extraordinary and ordinary viewers had a median score of 68 out of 100. But when viewers rated their happiness after the unstructured conversation, extraordinary viewers’ happiness dipped to a median score of 53 as opposed to 64 for ordinary viewers. Extraordinary viewers also said they felt more excluded. Researchers published their findings in October in the journal

Psychological Science.

Our Blind Spot

In follow-up experiments, researchers found that people don’t recognize the double-edged sword of rare experiences. Participants incorrectly predicted that their personal happiness wouldn’t take a hit after seeing the exciting film and the follow-up conversation.  Researchers believe this reflects past studies on the dichotomous nature of our pleasures: the social and nonsocial. Nonsocial pleasures, like sipping a rare wine, are best when they are novel, since we quickly adapt to a luxurious experience. Social pleasures, however, stem from other things we crave like acceptance, belonging and camaraderie. Therefore, an exciting trip to Bali may come at a social cost when standing around the coffee machine on Monday morning. So, a word to the wise — take some travel buddies, and relive your memories with them.

Photo credit: Germanskydiver/Shutterstock 

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