Today I wanted to tell you about a little known psychological effect that is robbing you of the ability to enjoy the small things in your life while simultaneously making you poor.
It’s little known because I invented it.
My dad, well versed in the world of wine, always tries to woo me with his latest vintage and to experience the tasting notes he’s found.
But I turn him down.
The concept I’m going to tell you about is the Connoisseur Effect and you’re going to learn about how and why to avoid it.
Enjoy the Small Things
Remember when you were younger and could really enjoy the small things in life like:
- Christmas & birthday gifts
- Mac & cheese
- A new game console (and the games!)
- Trendy clothes
You got a little older, you earned more money. You could spend more.
Now there was new things that were not quite so small that you got pleasure from:
- Fancy vacations for an anniversary
- Broccolini over Gruyère fettuccine
- A new car with heated leather seats
- Italian fashion brands emblazoned on your purse
Christmas and birthday gifts didn’t really do it anymore—not that you didn’t appreciate them. But hey, you could have just bought them for yourself.
Your taste buds became far too complex for the fake cheese from the blue box.
And while video games are still fun (and maybe even good for you!), they’re more of a social activity than an exciting purchase.
You won’t impress anyone with the latest trend from Old Navy or Abercrombie anymore. That’s not where the money is.
You’ve leveled up your spending—or, you might think you’ve matured.
Really, you’ve just been taken in by hedonic adaptation.
What is hedonic adaptation?
Hedonic adaptation is just a formal psychology term for describing how we humans tend to gravitate towards an “average” level of happiness.
If something really good happens to you—earn a huge raise, move to a bigger house, upgrade to that Tesla Model S you’ve been eyeing—you’ll generally be happier, probably.
Just not for very long.
One study showed that folks who won the lottery—extremely happy initially—were no happier than the average non-winner 18 months later.
We revert to our baseline happiness over time.
That initial pleasure comes from comparing the “before” to the “now”. But, soon, you adjust to your new state and it becomes the “before”.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
This reversion and adjustment sets a new, higher set of expectations to maintain your baseline happiness. That’s hedonic adaptation.
The sweet spot of “enough”
Enjoying the small things and avoiding hedonic adaptation go hand in hand.
Bracing for hedonic adaptation doesn’t mean not buying quality goods, services, and consumables.
In the context of reaching financial independence, it’s about differentiating between spending money on something for pleasure and spending money on something to solve a problem.
The “Fulfillment Curve” speaks to this: your goal is to spend money to reach a higher sense of fulfillment. But, fulfillment peaks once you’ve reached “enough”.
Spending more only reduces your personal fulfillment.
Let’s review of an example, starting at very little fulfillment and minimal money spent and increasing to too much spent and returning to little fulfillment:
- You rent a small apartment, too small for your necessities, partner, and animals—but it’s dirt cheap. You’re aggravated by lack of space and can’t host social events.
- Rent is sustainable, your new place has just enough rooms to house your family and space for your animals. You occasionally host a pot luck and game night, you feel at home.
- The mortgage is unsustainable but your place has three times the bedrooms as number of people that live in it—it’s enormous and stunning. You spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning and decorating the rooms you never use.
You can almost always spend more to get more, but more isn’t always better.
Figure out your answer to how much money is enough, then consider whether you really need more.
It’s important to remember that “enough” is a subjective point of view.
Enough for you may mean a fancy meal out once a year. For me, perhaps it’s once a month. You might find a brand new PS5 worthwhile as it brings with it a handful of years of cheap entertainment. I might think it’s a waste in the context of instead buying two tickets to a sunny island and avoiding sitting in front of a screen.
Neither of us is wrong, it’s our subjective, valid, experience and sense of fulfillment derived from our choice in spending.
Surpassing “enough” is the problem: would buying every game for that PS5 as soon as it comes out, for the life of the console, still be worthwhile to you? Probably not.
Eventually, bigger, better, more harms your sense of fulfillment even as you spend more money.
Avoid The Connoisseur Effect
So what’s this Connoisseur Effect?
As an example, consider rich food and dining as associated with fine and luxurious living.
On a day-to-day basis, do those wealthy consumers experience a higher level of pleasure and satisfaction from their consumption than those at a lower level?
Does the poor person who eats a blue box of mac & cheese experience less pleasure in their food than a wealthy person stuffing down heaps of Gruyère fettuccine?
Assuming this is a rather typical experience for each person, hedonic adaptation suggests their subjective experience is similarly pleasing.
Yet, if the wealthy person, used to eating finely prepared, rich and savory pasta were downgraded to simple mac & cheese—what level of pleasure would they experience?
I’d bet they’d turn their nose up at the 50¢ box of generic macaroni and cheese. Their palette is too finely tuned to the wealth of flavors they’re used to.
Learn to appreciate what you have
Musonius Rufus, an Ancient Roman stoic philosopher, when considering the needs of the wealthy—accustomed to luxury—once quipped:
“Thus, as worn-out iron constantly needs tempering, their appetites continually demand being sharpened either by neat wine or a sharp sauce or some sour relish.”— Musonius Rufus
The risk in a luxurious lifestyle isn’t necessarily in the direct consumption and expense of the luxury.
The risk is in losing your ability to enjoy the small things or to appreciate what you have.
And while sometimes it’s necessary to take risks in life to become a better person and achieve your goals, there’s a real chance of losing something of yourself.
It is far easier to be lulled into ever-increasing luxury than it is to ratchet back down to a simpler life.
Falling victim to luxury without remorse
What’s even more destructive to personal finances with this rising level of luxury, is that so many people wear this alteration in tastes as a badge of honor.
So often, as we lose our ability to enjoy simple things, it occurs without remorse.
We’re emboldened by our new connoisseurship.
We take pride in our inability to enjoy anything but the latest and greatest—nothing but the best.
Your palate turns sour at the scent of boxed wine being cracked open. Two buck chuck hasn’t graced your presence in years.
You can carry on about the tannins, aromas, and regions of Burgundy.
You slurp, slosh, and swirl your way to the finer notes of the sign of wealth in your glass.
It’s not simply carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen arranged in such a way as to carry the chemical combination of ethanol to your glutamate receptors and create that pleasant buzz.
No, now it’s your ability to exude a sense of refined taste.
It’s to appear rich.
You’re under the spell of the the Connoisseur Effect.
And you wear it with pride.
A loss of freedom
If I haven’t yet convinced you that of the risks of the Connoisseur Effect, consider what happens as you refine your tastes over time.
Your first experience with coffee may have been from a Keurig or one of those big drip makers at the office that was last cleaned in a different year.
You enjoyed coffee enough to spend more to try a fine Arabica whole bean, roasted locally and delivered fresh.
The blast of flavor and depth of tone taught you what real coffee tastes like, straight from your new Kalita pour-over coffee maker.
When you go to the office, you bring your own coffee with you now. That swill by the water cooler won’t do.
Folgers is for the ignorant.
But what has really happened to your ability to enjoy a cup of coffee?
As a coffee connoisseur, unable to palate the simple swill in the office, you’ve limited your own choice in what you drink.
You’ve not gained—you’ve lost the ability to enjoy the simple things.
Freedom and power is in having the ability to enjoy that which is easily obtainable or which can’t be taken from you.
To quote Seneca:
“It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants, but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.”— Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The Connoisseur Effect robs you of this power.
It breeds a sense of resentment as you look down your nose at the lesser version of what you desire.
How to Enjoy the Small Things in Life
If our goal is to live a fulfilled life and spend money effectively, we have multiple tools and wisdom of the ancients at our disposal.
- Avoid the hedonic treadmill by understanding you will adapt to every improvement in your life, reverting to your baseline happiness
- Following the fulfillment curve, find the sweet spot of enough money throughout your life
- Through the wisdom of the Stoics, value your ability to enjoy ordinary life—the simple things—and protect it
- Focus on that which you have influence over through your circle of control, don’t be distracted by the concerns around you of which you’re powerless
- Understand the purpose of spending money is to resolve problems, not to impress others
- Don’t be suckered by the Connoisseur Effect: experiencing luxury whets the appetite for even more while simultaneously degrading the pleasure of what you had before
Coming back to my dad and his wine tasting notes: sometimes it pains me a little to tell him I’m not interested. I know he wants to share his experience, and I do listen to what he’s learned about wine.
But so far as actually partaking and letting an $80 bottle of wine become “normal” to me? That’s what I avoid.
Jenni and I frequently have a box of Bota floating around our house during the week: it’s usually $18 and equates to four bottles of wine.
Frankly, I drink wine as a way to chill out and find a happy little buzz. That’s my purpose for it.
Drinking fancier—perhaps occasionally tastier—wine isn’t going to further that goal. It’s only going to dull my ability to enjoy that Bota Box, one of the simple things in my life.
Becoming a connoisseur arrives with a very real cost.
You lose options in your life to experience pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment.
They’re replaced with forces that’ll slowly break your ability to live below your means.
What parts of your life have been drained by the Connoisseur Effect?
What’s your weakness? I think ours is in foreign travel and craving more niche experiences!
Let us know in the comments!
22 replies on “Enjoy the Small Things in Life (Avoid the Connoisseur Effect)”
While hedonic adaptation is a major cause of people being in debt I think it would be a false dichotomy to suggest there are only two types of people. People who avoid having a continual rise in their expectations in life and people who cannot control rising levels of taste within their incomes. I think the optimum level for a full life is in the middle. Allowing your tastes to rise, but at a slower rate than your income, allows you to keep getting those little hits of joy from new experiences but doesn’t rob you of the ability to live simply, in my opinion. My wife and I drink $20 bottles of wine now, because we are millionaires, but we never turn our noses up at boxed wine. I love lobster and escargot but not more than I love a hotdog roast in our backyard. We stay in Hampton Inns and gather the points even though we could afford five star hotels, but that’s because we don’t see value in spending more than $100 a night on lodging. We’ll hand millions down to our kids because we spend all we want to, but I don’t think it has robbed us of any happiness. We spend on things that enrich our lives and relationships. And we buy a higher level of everything now than we used to, but its only a fraction of what we could spend if we were into impressing people. We just aren’t.
Hey Steveark! Thanks for coming by and offering your POV.
Agreed: I don’t think there’s only two types of people. I think you’re right, that matches the “Fulfillment Curve” (part of the article) quite well. There’s a spectrum beginning at “not enough”, proceeding to “enough”, and finally reaching “too much”. The idea is that we find our personal points of “enough” and seek to maintain them.
Stoic virtues (which is what a lot of this article is about) are about finding this balance, where worldly posessions, luxuries, and comforts don’t distract from your ability to live a fulfilled life. But that’s different from an Ascetic philosophy which has a particular focus on general abstention: drinking water is enough to fulfill the most basic needs, so any coffee, tea, or alcohol is unnecessary.
To one of your points though:
“I love lobster and escargot but not more than I love a hotdog roast in our backyard.”
I’d imagine that lobster and escargot expense could pay for an entire hotdog roast for many folks in your backyard, or similarly, be passed on to causes you care about (your own kids, perhaps other needy folks around the world, etc.). If you derive the same pleasure from each (as you stated), the suggestion the Stoics would make is to question why you would ever consume the more expensive one.
The devil might be in the details (health, availability, that first time experience)—but I think evaluating these sorts of decisions and being wary of passing that middle point of “enough” is the goal.
I agree with those points. However skipping the occasional haute cuisine so I could buy more hotdogs or give more money away feels like a straw man to me. We have plenty to eat well and give generously and leave a legacy. None of those excludes the others because we have an abundance of resources. Routine hot dog meals or frequent lobster either one would become tedious. But variety avoids tedium. Sprinkling a few exotic meals into our dining experience is just a small source of pleasure for us, one we can well afford. I wouldn’t presume to critique your food budget, nor would I be surprised if it exceeded ours. That’s a very personal choice. I have a billionaire friend with a personal chef and house staff. I don’t consider that excessive for him, but it would be ridiculous for me.
Steveark—thanks for a further followup.
I tied in some more responses to your approach and Joe’s comment further down this thread. I’d love to hear your take and appreciate the conversation. It’s really interesting to me.
I have a pretty good grasp on this concepts in my day to day life. That said, I suppose the personal finance portion of my life has likely been drained by the Connoisseur Effect. I heard on the radio a few weeks ago that only 55% of Americans own stocks. Here I am comparing myself and setting goals against personal finance metrics I didn’t even know existed ten years ago. I would be quite happy with where I am today ten years ago.
Hedonic adaptation has certainly hit healthcare. Take a simple X-ray or even advanced CT imaging. It’s pretty amazing technology on the surface, but we take it for granted. A five minute scheduling delay or a $100 co-payment can easily push a patient over the edge these days. They forget the fact that we are using electromagnetic radiation to take a look at what is happing with your bones through the skin. Let’s appreciate what we have for a minute, and not freak out over a little inconvenience. : )
Yep, gotta keep it all in perspective—you’re doing great!
Indeed, technology in general moves so fast—not just in healthcare. New smartphones roll out every year with big speed increases, better cameras, more features…and not even a year later we’re all clamoring for upgrades, having lost sight of whatever the thing was that we were excited about when we got the last one.
I somewhat agree. It’s good to avoid lifestyle inflation when you’re young and penniless. However, once you’re comfortable financially, why not enjoy it?
If every wealthy person is too frugal, the economy will seize up. It’s good to spend a bit to keep the economy rolling. You can’t take it with you, right? Might as well enjoy it while you can. Once you’re wealthy, of course. See my post to see if you’re too frugal. 😉
Totally right—can’t take your money to the grave, spend it in such a way that makes you happy.
I think that’s the key here—the target audience isn’t really you or Steveark (or really even me or Jenni) for this post. It’s more for our readers still on a path to FI:
I also don’t really think of it as “lifestyle inflation”. For example, in this post, I’m not advocating against spending money generally.
The purpose of the post is to advocate for spending money effectively.
Part of the problem though is that effective spending can be subjective. Take Steveark’s reply for example (not to pick on Steveark, it’s just a good way to further this conversation—thanks for putting up with it Steveark):
For them, an exotic meal here or there can be justified by the pleasure derived from it.
Each of us have over a million bucks in the bank—an exotic meal here or there isn’t going to break us.
It isn’t about “a few exotic meals”—what happens if the exotic meal isn’t “a few”, but turns into a few a week? Is it still worth the cost vs pleasure derived? Would the pleasure actually decrease with each additional exotic meal added to the monthly calendar?
Maybe it’s worth it for Steveark’s family a few times per month. Maybe once a week for Jenni and I. Maybe only a few times a year for you and Mrs. RB40.
There’s not an objective measure for all of us.
Perhaps most importantly, we wealthy already-FI folks got to where we are by knowing how to control that hedonic adaptation and manage the steady rise in spending versus the pleasures we bring into our lives (all against our income and savings rate).
For lots of other people, the equation inverts: hedonic adaptation creates a demand for pleasurable spending that exceeds a person’s income and ability to afford it. Their savings rate decreases and financial independence slowly disappears off into the horizon.
The Connoisseur Effect is about the specific change that occurs by indulging in “better” when you already enjoy a “lesser” version. If a change occurs wherein you’re no longer able to enjoy that previous, “lesser” version of the thing BECAUSE of your new “better” experience—that’s the Connoisseur Effect in action.
I used wine and coffee as an example, just because they’re easy and already associated with the word “connoisseur” in people’s minds—but this can apply to just about anything.
If you were perfectly happy watching movies on your 1080p HD screen at home but then saw a movie at a friend’s house in 4K HDR and now think your movie experience is lesser BECAUSE of that experience—you’ve lost a bit of the ability to enjoy your TV at home. Even though nothing has happened to your old TV set objectively.
Comparison is the thief of joy in such an instance.
Hedonic adaptation could takeover from there, send you off buying a new 4K set.
That’s very different from going to your friend’s house and finding that they have a new TV with smart features and WiFi. You think back to your house and how you have to pay for a cable connection and manually record your shows. Buying a similar TV in that case could be an effective choice (even if it IS a form of lifestyle creep) because it solves a real problem and source of friction in your life.
Supporting those new technologies, services, and solutions definitely stimulate the economy too! 🙂
I’ll probably take another bite at the apple here with this concept at some time in the future, I know it’s hard to convey and my writing still needs improvement for it to make sense. I could also be totally wrong!
Thanks for the feedback and helping me think more about it!
You know, the happiest I have ever been was when I lived in the country side in a 2 bedroom tiny house. Well, it was a shack actually. I drank my wine, had some BBQs with my wife and just looked up at the stars at night. I enjoyed it so much.
The funny part. I was broke at the time.
While I may not go back to living in a shack it did teach me a lesson. A mansion and fine dining will not make me a happier person.
A nice place, good company and some nice home cooked meals for sure will!
It’s almost like the things that make us contented, balanced, happy humans generally don’t really cost much.
Too bad we haven’t figured out the one thing that can get really expensive really quickly and we genuinely need: healthcare.
And when I say “we”, of course I mean the US.
“You’ve not gained—you’ve lost the ability to enjoy the simple things.”
In some cases, you make yourself less resilient too. For example, it drives me a little nuts when I see my neighbors starting their car up 10 minutes before they have to leave because it’s cold. In 2020, 60% (!) of the humans in the world don’t have a toilet. And you can’t be bothered to drive in a cold car? Come on now!
So, I carry 80 pound bags of concrete myself and sometimes go out in 20 degree weather in a t-shirt and move my own rocks because I want to be resilient and appreciate my life. Most things that are worthwhile are outside of the comfort zone.
“Starting their car up 10 minutes before they have to leave because it’s cold”
That one drives me a little nuts, too. Especially living in the city and then having to hear that engine idle out front, exhaust getting spewed out for us all to breathe. All rather uselessly.
Your 80 pounds of concrete remind me of Voluntary Discomfort-a concept in stoicism. I recall it from my reading of “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Great book.
Indeed, sometimes we need to intentionally challenge ourselves in order to level set and maintain our strength (physical and mental).
I think it’s ok to indulge on things so long as it doesn’t negatively effect your life. I too fell into purchasing more and more expensive coffee from hipster stores as my taste evolved and before long I was spending $20 on a 1 pound bag of beans! Same could be said for beer…even traveling off the beaten path. There’s an enjoyment that comes in finding something you like and taking it to the next level. I think it alot of it has to do with aging and the accompanying wisdom that life is so short and there is so much to learn and experience.
But it does come with a bigger price tag and inherit snobbery. I know for me, I’ve cut out the alcohol altogether and the hipster single sourced coffee and replaced it with costco bulk coffee–and you know what? After a few days I don’t notice the difference or miss the “better” coffee or the pleasant nights w/ an IPA. Whether this makes for a better life or not, depends on how I look at it. For now this discipline of mine is for the greater good, as it’s leading me down the right path for me. I try to keep a beginners mind in all things–keeps me humble and open. Happiness isn’t wanting everything, it’s wanting nothing.
“Happiness isn’t wanting everything, it’s wanting nothing.”
Noel over here dropping wisdom.
It’s a tough balance. It’s not like those single-source coffees don’t actually taste better. They do!
But it’s a question of whether it’s worth it to then maintain that ongoing consumption where eventually it becomes “normal” and now you’re just as happy as you were with those beans as you were with Folgers.
It’s different when it’s a one-time treat, or to experience something new for the first time.
Like you said:
“I think it alot of it has to do with aging and the accompanying wisdom that life is so short and there is so much to learn and experience.”
There’s a lot of value in these new experiences, figuring out what we like or don’t like. Identifying the things that ARE worth it as an ongoing upgrade to life.
Technically, we survived as humans for a really long time with a rock and a cave. It doesn’t mean that modern shelters and a pillow aren’t worth it.
It’s about finding “enough”, and staying there.
Great comment Noel.
Chris, this article was truly profound. I’ve bookmarked it to remind myself how to achieve true happiness in life. I completely agree with your mindset to just enjoy the small things in life. Thank you again for writing this. Keep up the great work!
Thanks for the kind words Tyler! Glad you enjoyed it.
Good luck on your FIRE journey 🙂
This is a great reminder to practice mindfulness. It’s really not the cup of coffee that will send you broke, it’s the mindset. It’s important to stay focused on our ultimate goals and the connoisseur effect can certainly take us off course. Enjoyed the article and dialogue in the comments. Good stuff!
Right! That’s for sure. It’s really not the one cup of coffee here or there. Hell, we could easily afford a nice cup of coffee each day of our lives.
It’s about the mindset that someone has that would decide to have that nice cup of coffee from the chain coffee shop up the street every day. It’s just not reasonable to expect that someone who would do that, would also avoid other easy consumer tendencies.
Developing a bit of a “frugality muscle” to be able to dismiss the small things (like coffee), to DIY your own little chores—building up that mindset—that spreads to the bigger things in life.
Thanks Simone! Sorry, this one got held in spam (looks like you accidentally entered both HTTP and HTTPS for the URL to your website—I fixed it and approved :)).
I like you kept. But I do like good wine. It’s good to be too frugal but it”s OK to enjoy a luxury every now and then.
For sure, I think there’s a balance to be had. I think drawing the line is the hard part.
For example, I’ve let the Connoisseur Effect creep into my life in some spots. Here’s a few random examples:
– I really enjoy clothing made from merino wool. I still have my first piece—a T-shirt that was probably around $60, and it’s literally in tatters. I’ve worn it hundreds of times on physical adventures. The tatters are from jungle and volcano hikes.
– I’m typing away from my work/gaming station that has way more power than I “need” to simply get my work done. I like to play a game now and then, but video games have been around for decades. There’s plenty of good games that I could play on the a near free computer from years ago, but I frequently want to play the “latest”.
– We both have iPhones (and have since the iPhone 3G days) even though we could get away with simple smartphones that are a lot less expensive.
– I’m very particular about a few food-related things like Fage greek yogurt, deluxe mixed nuts, and granola. Oh and dark chocolate (88%+!).
Just a few random examples where I still go for the luxury.
Thanks Chris for the post. I am actually new to this site and what initially drew me was the heading. I am at a stage where i am re-evaluating my finances and looking out for ways to save more and spend less. So far, i have read two of your articles and i must say, they are well written and straight to the point.
Hey Bade! Thanks for coming by and subscribing. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed a couple of posts!
If you’re just getting a feel for things, I think there are two good places to start:
1) Our earnings history and timeline for where we were in life, which gives you a better idea of what sort of privilege we had and how we got to where we are. It’s good context for our writing if you want to know the authors behind it. How to become a millionaire in 10 years (or less!).
2) Thoughts on living below your means—this is a great jumping off point for more detailed articles on particular topics. It hits the big points of how to get going with managing your finances.
Hope to see you around more! 🙂