Ask Ariely: On Roommate Relationships, Painful Priorities, and Admitting Aging

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I live with several roommates, and our landlord ­recently refunded some of our rent to make up for construction-related hassles in the building. What should we do with the ­money? We could divide it among ourselves, use it for house supplies or get a bigger TV to watch movies together. How should we think about this?

—Kristen 

I vote for doing something fun with the windfall—ideally something that would let all the roommates have a new experience together. Your relationships with each other are, I suspect, the biggest contributing factor to your happiness (or misery) at home: When they are good, life smiles on you, and when they are bad, you probably tend to stay out as much as possible.

Doing some activity together—say, sailing, skydiving or learning a new skill—would bring all of you closer and encourage you to be nicer to each other. You would ordinarily have a hard time asking everyone to chip in for an expensive group activity; after all, you are roommates, not standard friends.

But a refund from your landlord should feel more like free money—cash that no one planned on having and that everyone can probably manage without. That should make it easier to persuade your roommates to partake in some group-bonding activity.

Looking for the ideal skill to learn together? I would suggest a cooking class. You’ll not only have fun learning something new, but you’ll also enjoy better food—and perhaps the joy of cooking for each other for a long time.

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Dear Dan,

It has increasingly struck me that humans feel pain much more intensely than pleasure. Is this true, and is there a reason why pain affects us more?

—Brian 

Yes, we do experience pain much more intensely, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In general, nature wants to teach us to seek things that are good for us or the species (food, warmth, sex), so these give us pleasure. Nature also wants us to stay away from dangerous things (predators, toxins, fire), so these give us pain.

One might imagine that the things nature wants us to seek would give us pleasure, while the things that we should avoid would leave us feeling neutral. But the benefits and harms of life aren’t symmetrical. A good outcome (a delicious piece of fruit, for example) can give us some modest benefit, but a bad outcome (say, poison) can kill us—which is a very significant downside.

If the evolutionary priority for us is to seek good outcomes but especially to avoid bad ones, then our tendency to focus on pain (and potential pain) is a pretty effective way to shape our behavior. Even during painful times, I’ve found that a somewhat comforting thought.

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Dear Dan,

A friend of mine from work is turning 45. What should I get him?

—Janet 

If he doesn’t have reading glasses, get him a pair. People generally delay getting reading glasses, because it is hard to recognize the slow deterioration of our vision and because it means admitting that we are aging. If you give your friend a pair, you will spare him the procrastination, and he will immediately realize that he has been living in a blurry world. He might not immediately feel deep appreciation, but it would still be a very helpful present.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.