Happiness hacks

Happiness hacks are appealing as they're usually simple ways to wring more happiness out of life without having to really lose out in other ways. Dan Ariely addresses two common situations in this column in the WSJ:

  • Should you pay to park in a garage or spend time driving around looking for a street spot? 
  • How should you split dinner bills?

In Chinese culture, it's common to fight other diners to pick up the tab for dinner, and Ariely gives some psychological grounding for the logic of doing so.

The third approach, my favorite, is to have one person pay for everyone and to alternate the designated payer with each meal. If you go out to eat with a group relatively regularly, it winds up being a much better solution. Why? (A) Getting a free meal is a special feeling. (B) The person paying for everyone does not suffer as much as his or her friends would if they paid individually. And (C) the person buying may even benefit from the joy of giving.

Even before reading this Ariely column, we'd implemented something like this at work, primarily to minimize the psychic pain of transactional hassles like calculating bills, signing credit card bills, making change, etc.. When we were working out of a house in Menlo Park, we'd all go out to lunch together each day. Instead of splitting every bill, one person would always pick up the tab, and Nick, one of our developers, would snap a photo of the receipt and keep a running tally of who owed who. This made meals more pleasant for all of us. An ancillary benefit is that picking up bills accelerates the forming of tighter bonds between the people sharing the meal. Small financial commitments are a simple gateway drug for higher level covenants.

Another simple hack that some restaurants have put into place is pre-paying for meals. HIgh end restaurants like Next Restaurant (and now Grant Achatz's other restaurant Alinea) charge you for the meal when you score your reservation, often months in advance of the meal itself. This is beneficial for the restaurant since a single cancellation can kill a high end restaurant's margin for the night. But it's also good for the diner. The most unpleasant part of a fine dining meal is getting a staggering bill dropped on your lap while you're still trying to digest dessert. By pulling that pain up ahead so far, the meal can end more pleasantly. You get up with whatever they've given you as a takeaway gift, and often you can't even remember what you paid for the meal in the first place. The sacrifice for the diner is a bit of free choice on the food and beverages, but most fine dining restaurants have a fixed tasting menu anyhow, and choosing the wine is more taxing than empowering for most diners.

Riding with Uber offers a bit of this benefit since they have your credit card on file and you don't have to pay or calculate a tip when you get out of the vehicle. During the journey, there is no visible meter running so you can't stress the ever increasing bill you're due to pay ticking upwards in bright red numbers. The downside is that soon after your ride concludes, you get an email with the bill which often is your last memory of the ride. For all but the ultra wealthy, it's not the ideal way to end that transaction.

I would not be surprised to see Uber implement some type of discount for a pre-pay account where consumers might deposit $50 or some other amount at the start of the month and just deduct from it as you use the service during the month. Offering riders a discount for choosing this option makes sense. For one thing, pre-paying probably makes you more likely to choose Uber over a taxi since you want to use up your stored balance, especially if unused balances roll forward each month. More habitual usage then provides a greater volume of usage data for Uber to help drivers predict demand and routes ahead of time. Lastly, prepaid funds can provide some short float to Uber.

Companies in cities where Uber operates could be signed up for a corporate perks program in which the company could deposit a monthly stipend into each employee's Uber account. That would be a great way for Uber to introduce themselves to and acquire lots of new users en masse, in addition to being a great perk in a city like San Francisco, where I can never seem to find a cab when I really need one.