Savor Extraordinary Experiences, Feel Worse Afterward - Pacific Standard

Savor Extraordinary Experiences, Feel Worse Afterward

Harvard researchers find painful feelings of social exclusion are the unexpected price one pays for having amazing adventures.
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The view from Machu Picchu. (Photo: Gleb Aitov/Shutterstock)

The view from Machu Picchu. (Photo: Gleb Aitov/Shutterstock)

Feeling out of sorts this morning? Maybe it was that recent trip you took to Machu Picchu.

Sure, it was fun at the time—amazing, really. But it's not like you could truly share the experience of high-altitude awe with your friends and colleagues. As they compared amusing stories about bad camping trips, you began feeling not so much special and privileged as ... left out.

If that story describes you, congratulations: You've just discovered the surprising downside of engaging in a rare and wonderful adventure.

"Extraordinary experiences have two consequences, one of which may be more obvious than the other," a research team led by Harvard University psychologist Gus Cooney writes in a study just published in the journal Psychological Science.

People who had enjoyed something unusually wonderful "had little in common with their ordinary peers, who had a lot in common with each other, which made the extraordinary experiences both alien and enviable, which left them feeling excluded and sad."

"The obvious consequence is that they are enjoyable. The less-obvious consequence is that such experiences can make the people who have them strangers to everyone else on earth—and, as a rule, earthlings do not treat strangers so nicely."

Daniel and his colleagues—Harvard's Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia—describe three experiments that make their point. One featured 68 volunteers who gathered in groups of four at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory.

Each began by sitting at an individual cubicle and watching a five-minute-long film. One saw a short that a previous group had given a four-star rating (a video of a street magician in performance); the others saw one that had received only two stars (a piece of low-budget animation). After watching, each participant answered the question "How do you feel right now?" on a scale of one to 100.

Afterward, the four people gathered around a table and were instructed to talk among themselves for five minutes. Finally, they returned to their cubicles and answered a few final questions, including "How do you feel right now?" and "How did you feel during the interaction?"

The results: Participants who saw the excellent film clip "felt excluded during a subsequent social interaction," the researchers report, "and this left them feeling worse than participants who had had an ordinary experience instead."

While these results may seem predictable, the two additional experiments provide evidence that we do not, in fact, anticipate such a reaction. "Participants correctly predicted that the extraordinary experience would leave them feeling better than the ordinary experience would before the (social) interaction," they write, "but failed to realize that it would leave them feeling worse after the interaction."

These results reflect our "incompatible desires to do what other people have not yet done, and to be just like everyone else," according to Cooney and his colleagues.

In this study, they write, people who had enjoyed something unusually wonderful "had little in common with their ordinary peers, who had a lot in common with each other, which made the extraordinary experiences both alien and enviable, which left them feeling excluded and sad."

These findings may help explain a mystery: Why, in the words of Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, "America's wealthy class nonetheless seems to be in an absolute fury." Many of us have wondered why a group of people who are receiving a bigger and bigger share of the economic pie seem ever more agitated and unhappy.

Maybe they just need to get out of their exclusive enclaves and engage in experiences they can share with the rest of us.

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