How our 'fast-food culture' impedes happiness

Financial wealth has been shown to undermine the likelihood of savouring smaller pleasures

Published: Jul 19, 2016
How our 'fast-food culture' impedes happiness
Fast food has arguably become the ultimate symbol of time efficiency, and its influence extends far beyond our eating habits

A societal shift towards the instantaneous—with the explicit intention of saving time—is infused into modern life. But what are the implications for our happiness?

Technological innovations that offer convenience and time efficiency have brought remarkable changes to the way we spend our time.  These technologies have inarguably made our lives more convenient and our time usage more efficient. Presumably, being enabled to work more efficiently and spend less time on chores should provide us with greater opportunities for discretionary leisure time, enhancing our subjective well-being: yet while we have indeed experienced an appreciable increase in leisure time over the course of the past half-century, there has been no related improvement in aggregate happiness during the same period.

In our research we have found that cultural symbols that tout ‘time efficiency’ influence how we experience the passage of time by imparting a generalized sense of impatience. Furthermore, we found that this impatience hampers our ability to fully experience and enjoy life’s pleasurable moments—to ‘take the time to smell the roses’.

In Western society, time is conceptualized as linear and non-recoverable, and thus as a limited and valuable resource that can be spent, saved or wasted. Consequently, our daily activities are increasingly structured around an ‘efficiency principle’: the less time consumed by an activity, product or service, the better.

We recently set out to study an industry that perpetuates the efficiency principle even more than most: fast food. Traditionally, eating involves food preparation and communal dining, making it a social, ritualistic event where communities can bond, rather than merely take in nutrition. However, the popularization of fast food has shifted our habits towards ‘eating efficiently’—filling our stomachs as quickly as possible in order to move on to other, more important matters.

Indeed, fast food has arguably become the ultimate symbol of time efficiency, and its influence extends far beyond our eating habits. In The McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer details the widespread influence that the industry’s ‘efficiency principle’—to deliver products as quickly as possible—has had on the restructuring of organizations and society beyond the industry itself. For example, rather than waiting for furniture to be built, upholstered, and delivered, IKEA has thrived by offering consumers furniture they can take home, build and use that very same day.

Concern for time efficiency has also infused into areas we might not normally expect.  In journalism, for example, we now have ‘McNugget news’—sound bites that are merely seconds long and paragraph-length articles in newspapers such as USA Today, which make contextualizing a story impossible. Or consider the growing popularity of minute-long bedtime stories that ‘help’ parents—by shortening quality time with their children.

Modern society appears to have reached a point where it embraces time efficiency as a value in and of itself, and as a result, people seek efficiency even when it is counterproductive to do so. Wanting to get from point A to B as quickly as possible is efficient if you’re late for a meeting—but it represents impatience if you are strolling through a park. Indeed, there is a fine line between being time efficient and being impatient, and we posited that fast food and its symbols are contributing to a generalized sense of societal impatience.

Already, scholars from different disciplines have observed that, as people obtain more time-saving technologies, they become more—rather than less—impatient. Furthermore, research shows that mere exposure to fast-food brands makes people behave impatiently, whether that exposure occurs in a laboratory or in a natural environment. In one study, participants exposed to fast-food symbols exhibited accelerated reading speeds while under no time constraint. Prior research has also found that people who live in environments with a higher concentrations of fast-food restaurants are more ‘financially impatient’, and as a result, less likely to save their money.

Our Research
Scholarly interest in the enjoyment of life’s ‘small pleasures’ has resulted from widespread recognition that these pleasures contribute significantly to our emotional well-being and constitute some of the most salient instances of happiness in our lives. Our recent investigation examined how the activation of impatience by fast food symbols can undermine people’s ability to derive happiness from small, enjoyable experiences.

Importantly, to derive optimal happiness from a small pleasure, people need to ‘stay in the moment’ and prolong the subjective experience of savouring the moment. Thus, we hypothesized, factors that distract us from savouring a moment can undermine happiness. For example, financial wealth—which enables greater access to more expensive luxuries—has been shown to undermine the likelihood of savouring smaller pleasures (e.g., enjoying a piece of chocolate), because we mistakenly believe that any small moment of enjoyment pales in comparison to those offered by bigger luxuries.

Savouring a small moment requires the cessation of multi-tasking, and placing one’s full attention on the here and now; whereas impatience entails a desire to expedite activities and the arrival of the future. Therefore, we contended that the impatience that fast food induces may impede people’s ability to fully appreciate pleasant events, thereby reducing the happiness that could result from those events.

We conducted three studies. In one, we conducted a survey of ‘individual differences in the propensity to savour’ to see whether these could be predicted by neighborhood differences in fast-food restaurant concentrations. Native English speakers who reported residing in Internet-protocol-validated U.S. ZIP codes were recruited to complete an online survey in exchange for US$1. The 280 participants completed the positive emotion portion of the Emotion Regulation Profile (Revised). Participants also indicated their income on an eight-point scale, basic demographic information, and the ZIP code where they resided.  ZIP codes were then used to match each participant with neighborhood-level data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The concentration of fast-food restaurants relative to full-service restaurants in each ZIP code was calculated using the most recently available data from the Economic Census. This ratio measure of fast-food restaurants relative to full-service restaurants is consistent with prior socioecological research on the impact of fast-food concentrations on obesity and financial impatience and also helps to isolate the unique component of fast food from other food service–related stimuli in the environment, which is important because ‘appetitive stimuli’ in general tend to induce impatience.

Consistent with previous findings, greater income was negatively correlated with savouring and, critical for our hypothesis, greater fast-food concentration in one’s neighborhood exhibited a parallel relationship. Having found this intriguing relationship between the opportunity for chronic exposure to fast-food symbols in people’s everyday lives and their tendency to savour pleasant events in general, we then sought to address this with experiments that pitted impatience induced by exposure to fast-food symbols against simple pleasures that make some degree of savouring virtually unavoidable—such as images of a vivid, multi-coloured sunset or the melodious resonance of a perfectly executed aria.

The essence of fast food is not what you eat—tacos, pizza, etc.—but how you eat it, and this is meaningfully conveyed by fast-food packaging, which facilitates temporal efficiency because there are no dishes to wash, no waiter to wait for, and portable containers make meals easier to eat while multitasking (i.e., in the car, or at your desk). Thus, we examined whether the same food served in different packaging (i.e., ready-to-go branded packaging vs. ceramic tableware) would interfere with people’s njoyment of pleasant stimuli. To provide participants with a savourable experience, we showed them beautiful images of nature.

To determine whether fast food dampens happiness directly or interferes with savouring of pleasant experiences, Study 2 utilized a condition in which participants reported their state of happiness after the priming stimuli without first seeing beautiful photos. We hypothesized that participants primed with fast-food symbols would only be less happy than controls when provided beautiful photos to savour—but that when there were no such photos, the priming stimuli would not cause any differences in happiness.

Two hundred and fifty-seven participants were told that they were going to engage in ‘multiple, unrelated tasks’. We introduced ‘fast food’ by asking participants to rate pictures for their advertising suitability on a seven-point scale. In the fast-food condition, participants saw a picture of a cup of coffee and a picture of an exposed burger and fries, both in standard McDonald’s packaging; whereas those in the control condition saw pictures of the exact same exposed food and drink, but with ceramic tableware.
Next, half of the participants immediately rated their happiness on a seven-point scale, while the other half were presented with 10 photographs of scenic natural beauty before rating their happiness.

As expected, participants randomly assigned to view the nature pictures rated themselves as happier than participants who did not view the nature images. Among participants who had a chance to view the nature images, however, those in the fast-food condition reported a significantly lower state happiness than those n the control condition. This reveals that fast food does not have a direct negative effect on happiness, but rather impairs individuals’ savoring of pleasant stimuli.

In Study 3, we explored the mechanism underlying the negative effect of fast food on individuals’ ability to savour. We presented participants with a harmonious opera aria and measured their emotional reaction as well as their subjective perception of the length of the audio clip. Given that people who are impatient are likely to feel that ‘time passes slowly’, and that the subjective passage of time is a metacognitive cue that people use to judge their enjoyment of an experience, we expected that those primed with fast food may perceive the duration of elapsed time during pleasant experiences as subjectively longer, and therefore less enjoyable. We also included a self-reported measure of impatience experienced during the song, in order to demonstrate that it is this greater impatience caused by exposure to fast-food symbols that mediates the causal relationship between fast food and happiness derived from pleasant experiences.

Consistent with the previous study, participants in the fast-food condition reported marginally-significant decreased positive emotional responses to the music. As well, fast-food primes caused participants to report that the music ‘felt as though it lasted for a longer time’, relative to control primes. This suggests that participants primed with fast food experienced the same period of time as passing more slowly than did controls. The prediction that being primed with fast food increases impatience was also supported by the self-report measure of impatience: participants reported significantly greater impatience in the fast-food condition.

Our Findings
The ability to enjoy pleasurable moments—however small they may seem—is critical to individual well-being. Although people redict that ‘major life circumstances’ like marriage or a great new job are what will make them happy, in reality, these things explain little of the individual variance in happiness. Income, for instance, appears to have a surprisingly modest impact on happiness, likely because, as indicated earlier, it undermines the likelihood of savoring life’s smaller pleasures.

Frequent small pleasures appear to be a more reliable path to happiness. Undermining people’s ability to derive pleasure from everyday joys could exert a significant long-term negative effect on their level of happiness. It is ironic that technologies designed to improve well-being by minimizing the time we spend on mundane chores may ultimately undermine the surplus leisure time they permit us. By instigating a sense of impatience, these technologies may actually be preventing us from savoring the enjoyable moments that life offers serendipitously.

In closing
Across three studies, we found that exposure to fast-food symbols reduced people’s tendency to savour, which indirectly impaired their ability to derive happiness from pleasurable stimuli.

It is certainly true that happiness does not solely depend on savouring. However, given the prevalence of fast-food symbols—and the countless other symbols of efficiency that pervade our everyday environment—it is critical to better understand their influence. As ubiquitous symbols of our impatient culture, fast-food symbols not only impact our physical health, they (and other symbols of efficiency) may also shape our happiness in unexpected ways.

(Sanford DeVoe is an Associate Professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management and was previously at the Rotman School.  Chen-Bo Zhong is also an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and HR Management at the Rotman School of Management. This article is based on their research paper, “Too Impatient to Smell the Roses: Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness”, which was published in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science. The paper was co-authored with Julian House, a Rotman PhD student in Organizational Behaviour.)

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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