How money can buy happiness, wine edition

By Felix Salmon
October 28, 2013

I spent the past couple of days in Berkeley, participating in a number of events at the inaugural Berkeley Ideas Festival. The highlight for me was interviewing Donald MacDonald, the architect of the new (and magnificent) Bay Bridge. But I was also asked to present a little “provocation” on the second morning, in between heavier sessions covering topics like the effect of 3D printing on the manufacturing workforce and the rise of the plutocracy.

So I thought I’d be a little servicey, and let the audience into a secret: specifically, the secret of how to buy happiness with money.

Berkeley is a fun place to give such a talk, since it’s full of the kind of people who are convinced as a matter of principle that money can’t buy happiness. (Where “money”, much of the time, is code for “San Francisco”.) And it’s also the kind of place where the idea of the hedonic treadmill — the theory which says that we all have our own set level of happiness. Good things can happen to us, which make us happy, and bad things can happen to us, which make us sad, but the effect doesn’t last very long. Even if very good things happen to us, like winning the lottery, or very bad things happen to us, like becoming quadriplegic or losing a spouse, we eventually end up back where we started. (The only reasonably sure-fire way of bringing the set point down, interestingly enough, is becoming and then staying unemployed.)

Now there are things which make us happy, briefly. You might even have heard the saying that “anybody who thinks that money can’t buy happiness, has never bought a puppy“. But every adult also knows that for all their upside, puppies also come with a downside.

So what we’re looking for here isn’t something which will lift the line forever — only spiritual gurus promise that. And it’s not something where short-term happiness ends up being paid for with long-term side-effects. Instead, what we’re looking for is something which will predictably make us happier in the short term, which will have very little in the way of negative long-term effects, and which can be repeated as often as you like. Basically, any time you want to be happier, spend some money on this, and you’ll be happier. And then it’s over, and you can go back to your life, and if you want to do it again, you can.

This is a non-trivial task, because of the way the hedonic treadmill works: you get used to stuff. Remember those lottery winners. People become habituated to nice things: while your bigger house or fancier car can indeed make you happy in the short term, you get used to it pretty quickly, and before long you just become scared to lose it. I was very happy with my living conditions when I was in college, but I’d hate to go back to them now. So if your goal is happiness, you don’t want to wind up in what I think of as the collector mindset: the feeling that whatever you have is somehow incomplete, and that buying new things is a way of temporarily filling a void. We don’t want that: we don’t want something where you’re sad when you don’t have it. We just want something where you’re happy when you do have it. And which you can buy with money.

Now most of the time, in most areas, even if money doesn’t buy happiness, it does buy quality. If you spend $100,000 on a car, it’s going to be a better car than the one rusting away on the second-hand lot which is on sale for $3,500. The positive correlation between price and quality is a basic law of capitalism — but there are exceptions. And one of the main exceptions is wine.

If you study what happens in blind tastings, you get the same result over and over and over again. You can try this at home, if you like; I’ve done that many times, with friends, and it’s a lot of fun. You can do a scientific analysis of more than 6,000 wine tastings, which found a negative correlation between price and quality. Or you can look at the wines which win medals at wine competitions, where it turns out that winning one competition gives you no greater likelihood of winning the next one, and where if you enter the same wine two or three times in the same competition, it can appear all over the place in the final results.

But here’s the trick: if you can’t buy happiness by spending more money on higher quality, then you can buy happiness by spending money taking advantage of all the reasons why people still engage in blind tastings, despite the fact that they are a very bad way to judge a wine’s quality. If you know what the wine you’re tasting is, if you know where it comes from, if you know who made it, if you’ve met the winemaker, and in general, if you know how expensive it is — then that knowledge deeply affects — nearly always to the upside — the way in which you taste and appreciate the wine in question.

Fortunately, nearly all of the time that we taste wine in the real world, we do know what we’re drinking — and we do know (at least roughly) how expensive it is. In those situations, the evidence is clear: When we know how much we spent on what we’re drinking, then the correlation between price and enjoyment is incredibly strong.

The more you spend on a wine, the more you like it. It really doesn’t matter what the wine is at all. But when you’re primed to taste a wine which you know a bit about, including the fact that you spent a significant amount of money on, then you’ll find things in that bottle which you love. You can call this Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome if you want, but I like to think that there’s something real going on. After all, what you see on the label, including what you see on the price tag, is important information which can tell you a lot about what you’re drinking. And the key to any kind of connoisseurship is informed appreciation of something beautiful.

In another session at the Berkeley conference, I interviewed Randall Grahm, the biodynamic winemaker. I love biodynamic wines, even though I think that the philosophy behind them (cosmic rays, etc) is in large part completely bonkers. And I think that a large part of the reason why biodynamic wines taste so honest and delicious is that the discipline of biodynamic winemaking forces winemakers to spend much more effort and concentration on the way they grow and harvest their grapes. Similarly, when you really pay attention to the wine that you’re drinking — something which you’re much more likely to do when you know that it’s expensive — you’re going to be able to discover beauty and nuance which you might otherwise miss.

What’s more, it stands to reason that the more we know about what we’re drinking, the more we’re going to like it. And that if you’re talking about something as complex and enigmatic as wine, the apotheosis of agricultural artistry, then there’s going to be more to find in a bottle of fine Burgundy than there is in a bottle of Blue Nun. After all, the global consensus on which wines are the very best in the world has been remarkably consistent for centuries.

Taste in wine is a real thing, which, while it does change over time, does so much less radically than does, say, taste in furniture. It’s an elusive thing, hard to pin down, and there are many reasons why it’s especially hard to isolate in the artificial environment of the blind tasting. But it does exist, and it’s undeniable that nearly everybody who buys and drinks expensive wine (say, $20 per bottle and over) gets real pleasure out of doing so. (“Real pleasure”, I should note, is a redundant phrase: all pleasure is real, no matter whether its genesis is more likely to be a label or a liquid.)

And here’s the really clever bit: even if you think that this is all just a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and that the whole concept of fine wine is at heart a con, the correlation between price and pleasure still holds up. As Daniel Kahneman says, it’s one thing to know your cognitive biases; it’s something else entirely to overcome them.

I, for instance, am absolutely convinced, on an intellectual level, that the whole concept of “super-premium vodka” is basically one big marketing con. Vodka doesn’t taste of anything: that’s the whole point of it. As such the distinction between a super-premium vodka and a premium vodka is entirely one of price and branding. And yet, it works! The genius of Grey Goose was that it created a whole new category above what always used to be the high end of the vodka market — and in doing so, managed to create genuine happiness among vodka drinkers who spent billions of dollars buying up the super-premium branding. But if someone asks me what kind of vodka I’d like in my martini, I still care, a bit. And if I my drink ends up being made with, say, Tito’s, I’m going to savor it more than I would if I had no idea what vodka was being used.

What’s more, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on first-growth Bordeaux for this to work. You just need to spend a little bit more than you normally do — enough that you consider it to be a special bottle of wine. That’s it! When you sit down and pop it open, probably with people you love, in pleasant surroundings, everything is set for a very happy outcome.

And you can do this again and again and again. Spend money on an expensive bottle of wine, open it up, drink it, enjoy it, repeat. I’m not talking about collecting wine, here, that’s a different pathology. I’m just talking about drinking it. There’s really no downside, beyond for the money you’re spending — a single bottle of great wine, shared with a friend or two, isn’t even going to give you a hangover. You can convert money into happiness as often as you like: it never gets old.

This explains, I think, why rich people tend to be so fond of fine wine: it’s the most consistently reliable way that they can convert money into happiness. So if you have a bit of disposable income, get yourself down to your local wine shop. It’ll make you happy, I promise.

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