Sue delivered an engaging keynote titled "Positive Psychology and Prada" at the 2018 Happiness & it's Causes Conference in Sydney, Australia. Watch or read the full presentation below.
I thought I’d start this morning by telling you a story. And my story begins in 1991. I started writing a journal in 1985 and in 1991 I started a ‘things to do before I die’ list. Now most people think of that as a "bucket list", yet for me it has always been a ‘thing to do before I die’ list. And one of the things that appeared on that list was a Prada handbag.
I’m not really a handbag person, yet for some reason I thought a Prada handbag seemed to be one of these things that if I owned one, it meant I had been successful. At the time that seemed logical. Most of us know that having a Prada handbag probably has nothing to do with success yet anyway it appeared on my list. And then the story of the handbag continued.
For about 10 years it stayed on my list. I probably could have bought one yet I found myself heading for the ten year mark and I was going over to Italy, and I thought “you know what? Where better to buy a Prada handbag than in Italy?”
So I’m over there. I’m on four weeks travelling around Italy. I love Italy. It’s one of my favourite places. I actually just got back from Venice 24 hrs ago or 36 hrs ago, yet this was my first trip with my partner and I had 4 weeks. And I had decided that finally, I was going to tick off ‘buy a Prada handbag’ from my ‘things to do before I die’ list. So every time I found myself in a city where there was a Prada shop, I’d go in, and I’d have a look around, and I’d touch them.
Now many of you, if you’ve had lots of Prada handbags, maybe this is meaningless, yet, oh my god it was so exciting to touch a Prada handbag! And so I’d stroke them and I’d look around and I’d think “oooooh what would I like? Which one? Which one should I pick?” And as we trundled around Milan and Rome and Florence and Venice, I looked…though I didn’t buy.
And then on my last day back in Rome I went back to the Prada store. And I had already by then decided the handbag I was going to have. And I stopped, and I looked, and I thought about it. And I actually rang my sister back in Australia and I said “it’s really expensive!” and she said “you’ve waited ten years for this! You’ve earned it!” and I’m thinking…”I’m going to do it! I’m going to buy that Prada handbag!”
So I picked up the one that I had spent this time choosing and I went to the desk to pay for it. And again maybe you knew this (I didn’t); when you buy a Prada handbag, they put it in a bag. One of those little, soft, squishy things with the drawstring tops. I didn’t know that, it was very exciting... And then, they put the bag in the bag, in a bag! And they give you the Prada bag, the paper square beautiful paper bag to take home, with your bag in a bag!
Now I was thoroughly enjoying this experience. I must have been like a five-year-old in a candy store. I was wanting to touch things as they put the bag in the bag in the bag. And anyway, it was a joyous experience. And I came away with my bag in the bag in the bag, and I carried it away and I brought it home, and then for about the next nine years, I used that handbag every, single, day. And you can’t see this very well from down there yet you’ll look at it and think “oh my goodness! it’s falling apart, it’s looking really tacky and bad”. More on that story later…
So that was my original Prada handbag. And I would sit on the bus sometimes going into the city here in Sydney and I would have my handbag on my lap and I would stroke it. And I would hold the little tag on it that’s really heavy, and I would think back to that shop and the trip to Italy with my husband, and exploring around and going in the shops and seeing all these things, and when they put the bag in the bag in the bag, and all of this would come back to me as I sat there on the bus, stroking my handbag.
Now what does this have to do with positive psychology?
Well, maybe something, maybe nothing.
We are bombarded all the time with comments that “money can’t buy you happiness”. It’s not something that can be bought, it’s something that we ‘be’. It’s something we experience. Money isn’t going to be the thing that gives it to you. And we are also bombarded by all sorts of interesting images that indicate to us that “of course money can buy you happiness! It can buy you jewellery that will make you happy. It will buy you fame, it will buy you houses and of course they will make you happy! It will buy you beautiful cars, it will buy you fabulous holidays and you will of course be happy!” Oh and then there is all the get rich quick schemes and the books you can read because being rich will make you happy!
We are bombarded with images that tell us that ‘no, of course money can buy you happiness!’ Our celebrity culture that we have, indicates to us that there must be something about “money can buy you happiness” and I’ve just told you that a Prada handbag made me happy!
So I thought we’d just explore some of the science behind it.
I looked up the definition of happiness which was not really that helpful because it said “it is the state of being happy”. Now I don’t know about you but that really doesn’t help at all! (Laughter).
Happiness is a noun. It is an abstract noun. It is a ‘thing’. And yet most of would probably say that you can’t have a ‘thing’ (like happiness). It is hard to have a ‘thing’ like happiness. You can have a grasshopper, or a bag, or a car…yet you can’t have happiness. And yet it is a noun. It’s a ‘thing’.
So then I looked up happy and I thought “ooooh I don’t know, I think my Prada handbag DID give me a state of pleasure.” Yet there’s lots of other things in positive psychology that explore pleasure, and I can’t do anything without exploring the neuroscience behind things. And that was where I spent my three weeks in Venice, actually learning about the brain at the advanced neuroscience school.
When you think about what gives us pleasure, this reward sensation in our brain, this dopamine that we produce, is where we get that pleasure sensation. And serotonin, another neurotransmitter around happiness. So when we think about the pleasure elements, and my Prada handbag (let’s face it) is a pleasure I don’t really need…Well maybe I do (laughs)..
Well I didn’t really need a Prada handbag yet it gives us that reward sensation, that pleasure. And one of the things that sometimes is a challenge about that, is that when we get that burst of dopamine, and some of you will remember I shared this last time, dopamine becomes this little cheer squad in your brain that goes “go on!! Buy it! Buy it! You know you want it! You have to have it!”
And that could be anything; that could be the chocolate cake, it could be the Prada handbag, it could be the next big screen TV, yet your dopamine is going “go on, you know you want it, go on, buy it, buy it, buy it!!!’” And you almost can’t stop yourself. And that’s that reward sensation we get.
We also have this obsession in more western culture about income and happiness. Money and happiness. And yet for many of you who understand how positive psychology works, you know that there is a tipping point. When it comes to income, yes it can make us happy initially depending on how much we earn, yet once we reach a certain level, it actually doesn’t contribute a huge amount to our happiness. And if you want to know more about that, let me know. They reckon in Australia it is somewhere around $75,000 yet I think that’s probably depends on where you live (laughs).
We also know from some of the research, the science around positive psychology, that we adapt. So as human beings, we can sometimes find ourselves caught on the hedonic treadmill; where we want something new, and it feels good initially, and then we adapt and we come back down to a more neutral point. And so therefore we need something else; we need that next reward sensation, we need the next step, we need the next big car, we need the next Prada handbag. We need more because we adapt to things. Now that can be useful if we are adapting to the negative. So, we need to consider that as well. When we have our down moments, human beings are designed to adapt. We are designed to be resilient. We are designed to come back on track.
So, if we think about all of this learning from positive psychology, we know that we adapt to things. Well that’s not overly helpful if it’s the good stuff. We know that dopamine will sometimes push us into pleasure seeking, and that hedonic treadmill. We also know if we think about some of the key theories, there’s often two sides talked about when it comes to overall wellbeing. There’s the ‘happiness’ side of things, the subjective wellbeing. “Am I happy?” And that’s really the definition that I gave you upfront. That happiness is a feeling of pleasure. “Do I feel a sense of pleasure in this moment?”
And then there’s the other side of wellbeing which is more the meaning, the purpose, the connection to others, the sense of achievement if you like. All of those things that are perhaps bigger.
And has anyone ever had one of those days, it can go one of two ways. Option A is you’ve had a really pleasurable day. You’ve had an awesome day. Great stuff has happened, yet you don’t really feel like you’ve achieved anything meaningful, it hasn’t been a very fulfilling day.
Or, you’ve had a really fulfilling day, you get to bed and you think “yeah, today was really worthwhile”, yet you haven’t had any of that happiness stuff. Often happens with children when you put them to bed. You’ve had a really awful day wrangling them with none of this happy stuff and you put them to bed and they tell you they love you. And you think “aawwww, it was worth it..”
I remember a few years ago at the world congress of positive psychology there was a bit of a push back against the ‘happy’ side of things. And it was almost as if it was now bad to study happiness, and we all had to focus more on ‘meaning’. And that’s important because a lot of early research really did focus on the ‘pleasure’, … as in the positive emotions side of things. So there was a real kick-back to say “well hang on, we need to focus on meaning because sometimes that sense of meaning, that richness, that (what they call) psychological wellbeing is more powerful.”
So I started to feel bad. …I’m thinking “ooooh, maybe I shouldn’t be having my Prada handbag. It’s pleasure. It’s a material thing. Maybe it’s not good”. Yet let’s see what we can learn from that story.
If we think about what we know from the research, we actually know that money CAN buy happiness, depending on how you spend it. Now some of you I’m sure will have come across this research before, that basically suggests if you spend your money on experiences or other people, you are more likely to get longer, lasting, higher levels of wellbeing than if you spend it on yourself and material items.
Now that’s all well and good yet my Prada handbag still doesn’t fit into that. It was all about me, and it was definitely material. So, how do I still make it relevant to my story?
Well I’d like you to consider something for a moment. I’d like you to consider my story. And I’d like you to consider what the psychology of time tells us. There is a whole load of research about the psychology of time. And a lot of people will have learnt about things like mindfulness and being present. Being absolutely in the moment. And there is definitely a place for that. Yet guess what? People who report higher levels of wellbeing, have a balance.
Yes, they are present. They are mindful, they are focused on what they are doing. And they also dream about the future. About what is possible. About new ideas, new thoughts, new possibilities.
Well for ten years my Prada handbag was a dream. It was anticipated. My entire four weeks in Italy it was anticipated. The moment, the stroking of the bags, I actually got told off in one, that I shouldn’t touch them (laughs). Yet that moment of dreaming about the future, about what’s possible. People with higher levels of wellbeing also balance their time-focus with things in the past as well.
So when I purchased my Prada handbag, those nine years afterwards when I sat on the bus, and I stroked my handbag and I thought about my trip to Italy, that was also practising positive psychology. The psychology of time tells us we need to be in the present, we need to be thinking about the future, we need to also be able to reminisce about the past.
All of those things have the ability to provide us pleasure.
So as I end I’m going to finish with my story of my Prada handbag, and you might wonder why there’s two (holds up two Prada handbags that have been sitting on the stage). Are you thinking “well clearly she was on the hedonic treadmill, she had to buy another one!?” And yes, I did.
You’ll see this one is slightly shinier than the other one (holds up one of the bags). Because after nine years of owning my beautiful first Prada handbag, I moved house. And I had never had a walk-in wardrobe before. I got very excited with my walk-in wardrobe. And that sounds very exciting until you see or hear that our house is six bedrooms and it also houses twelve of my team who live there most of the time with me! So it’s not quite so flash as it sounds.
My Prada handbag sat on the floor while we were unpacking this new house, in my walk in wardrobe. And unfortunately, one of my cats (laughs), you know what’s coming… one of my cats is a little bit scared of change. And unbeknownst to me for the couple of weeks while we were settling in and unpacking with my handbag on my floor of this walk-in wardrobe, Nazma decided to use it as a toilet (laughter). So my beautiful Prada handbag that after three years I still can’t give away, or sell, or throw away, has been through the wash numerous times, and still I decided it would make an appearance on the stage today.
So think about what you can learn from this. It’s not about Prada, it’s not about a handbag. Yet it is about if you are going to indulge in pleasure, don’t let it be superficial. Anticipate it. Savour it in the moment. And then reminisce and think about how awesome that item was or still is.
Thank you so much for your time and hopefully we’ll see you later.