• Elizabeth Dunn

We take our time reading the Sunday New York Times. Our reward is deeper thoughts when, inevitably, we start talking back to it.

This weekend in the Sunday Review section we came across a discussion by professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton of important recent research into what happens when commuters interact with other passengers they don’t know. Apparently—all our intuitions notwithstanding—the rides become more pleasant.

Dunn and Norton remark: “The great thing about strangers is that we tend to put on our happy face when we meet them, reserving our crankier side for the people we know and love. When one of us, Liz, was in graduate school, she noticed that her boyfriend, Benjamin, felt free to act grumpy around her when he was in a bad mood. But if he was forced to interact with a stranger or acquaintance, he would perk right up. Then his own pleasant behavior would often erase his bad mood.”

A book Dunn and Norton recently wrote together, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, calls this the “Benjamin effect.” But Liz, I think you’re holding back. What about your mood?

When Benjamin acted like a jerk to you and then utterly charmed the first stranger he ran into, did you think, “He can be so sweet! I must try harder!”? Or did you think, “What a phony asshole!”

Is Benjamin still in the picture? There is one later reference to him in Happy Money:

As a graduate student, Liz was frequently rebuffed when she attempted to take bites of food from the plate of her fully grown and otherwise charming boyfriend Benjamin (whom you may remember from chapter 2). Reflecting on his childhood, Ben’s mother shook her head and explained sadly, “Benjamin just never liked to share.”

Liz, is revenge sweet?