The Opportunity Cost of Fun

June 24, 2009

5 Stars, A+, CHECK +, Two Thumbs Up!

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" Am I having fun yet?"

I was circling the blocks on Vermont between Sunset and Hollywood on a Friday night, swerving in and out of a tight two way road. “Where is it?” I asked myself as the blue blip on the map function of my iphone paused. I had found this restaurant on Yelp before I left the house but like other smart phone users had  neglected to really look up directions, thinking that I could always rely on my smart phone when I got there.  After twenty minutes of searching, I finally get there. A small Italian restaurant dimly lit by lights on the inside.

I was there on a date, a second one, and I had to impress. We all know how the first date is important, but not as important as the second one, that is the date where…. wait that’s a story for another day. Anyways when I have to impress I always scour the web for positive reviews for a restaurant. I start by hitting Yelp, usually a good place to help thin out the crowd. Look for an area you are going to be around, find the type of food you want to eat, pick the highest ranking restaurant, and start reading the reviews. I try to answer my more practical questions ones first:  How much does it cost?  Is the food any good? What is the ambiance like? I usually narrow it down to three or four. Next I go to chow-hound or food blogs to see if people have eaten there and taken pictures. I usually end up with two or three restaurants before I start considering which one is the best one for the night. If I am going on a date, which one she will like the best and give me the best opportunity to impress. This seems like a lot of trouble doesn’t it?

If I think about how much my life depends on ratings, reviews, other people’s opinions and critics, it seems like I hardly make a decision without a panel of experts. It’s like I am a contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and I choose ask the audience for all of my decisions. You maybe saying, “You are exaggerating, you can’t possibly be relying that much on other’s opinions!” Okay. Let me count the areas that I use ” The Audience” option.

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When I buy a book on Amazon, it is not enough that I read the critic’s blurbs about the book, I then look at the rating that users have given it and read through a few opinions of the book. Before I see a movie I look at the score on http://www.rottentomatoes.com; read the blurbs that critics wrote about it, and then look up the reviews of credible critics that I agree with on most movies. Before I download an album on the internet, usually free of charge(Please don’t rat me out) I look up reviews on http://www.rollingstone.com, maybe http://www.pitchforkmedia.com, or http://www.stereogum.com; and that is the prep work I do before downloading an album. Imagine if I was paying for that darn thing. I would probably call the artist himself/herself to make sure that they had a money-back guarantee. What else do I do this for? Electronic goods, apartment listings, video games, salons, dog parks, cell phones, professors, girlfriends. Okay I am just kidding on that last one, but I even looked up reviews of a park just for the off chance that it might not be as green as another park; hence not as park-like.

It didn’t use to be this way though. Not exactly. If a restaurant was good, we would hear about it from a friend, or maybe we would read a review of it in The Los Angeles Times or maybe some other magazine. More often than not we would find out if it was good or not by eating there, forming our own opinion, and deciding for ourselves whether we liked it or not.

We formed our own opinions of whether the soup was too salty, service too abrupt, or dessert being mind blowing. Somewhere with the invention of these web 2.0 websites, we started reviewing everything we experienced. We started relying on the opinions of others to make our own judgement. I find myself sometimes asking these absurd existential questions. “If I like how this soup tastes, do I really like how this soup tastes? Or is it because I had read positive reviews of this soup and therefore am influenced in someway by how good it tastes to me?” Somewhere along the way we lost the desire to be surprised. We lost our spontaneity. Remember the good old days when you would go see a movie out of a whim and not reading anything or hearing anything about it and being completely blown away? That hasn’t happened for me in years. The last movie I saw where that happened was The Descent, and that was a lower budget movie with little or no marketing. Good chance that if it is a big budget movie, you will know the entire plot of the movie by the time you are done watching the trailer. We just don’t want to be surprised anymore.

What is the cause of this? Are we that boring? Don’t we want to have fun anymore? We don’t like excitement? No.

It is that we have begun to economize fun. We maximize output in our jobs, try to maximize our monetary gain, our production in the bedroom; and now we have turned to maximizing the last thing in our lives: our free time. It is not enough that it is there and we can use it how we see fit. We have to make sure that it is enjoyed to the greatest degree. We all know that time is fixed. There is a finite supply of it. When we choose to do one activity over another we sacrifice the opportunity to do Activity A to enjoy Activity B. The opportunity cost of this transaction is that we could have done Activity A but chose to do Activity B; therefore we forgo the enjoyment that may have been possible with A. The same is true when we decide to watch the latest Pixar movie UP! over Terminator Salvation. We have to give up one to see the other on a certain night, at a certain time. This is where the reviews and opinions come in. We want to maximize our enjoyment and satisfaction out of these activities out of fear that the opportunity cost will be too great to forgo. What if I saw UP! and it wasn’t any good? That means that I could have watched Terminator Salvation, a movie that I could have enjoyed. Then the doubts settle in. What if Terminator Salvation turns out to be the greatest movie of our generation? What if it could have changed my whole outlook on life? Do I take the chance? Let me check the reviews… Whew, UP! is better reviewed, I’ll see that.

" Yes... I am a Yelper"  Yes… I am a Yelper 

Slowly we incorporate this way of thinking into every aspect of our lives. This dinner is really important, I can’t have it ruined by a bad meal. This tuesday night is the only tuesday night of the week, I can’t have it ruined by a bad night out.  If I bought this book and read the whole thing only to find out it was crap, I would have wasted weeks! I need to know how good it is from others just to be sure.

 Who thinks like this? Economists, accountants, people dealing in business transactions, the controller of a plastics factory that has to decide whether sustainable plastic will provide more profit in the long run. Do you really want to apply the same logic used by that guy buying plastic to whether or not you should eat at this taco stand? The real opportunity cost of using all these opinions and reviews is spontaneity. We lose the excitement of discovering a hole in the wall that serves the best tamales. We don’t get to be surprised by a real page turner from an unknown author. We knew it was going to be a great thriller, especially in chapter five. Worst yet, if all we eat at are superbly rated restaurants, how do we look at things comparatively then? Sometimes we need to eat at a bad meal at TGIF before we can appreciate the subtly of the food at Mozza. Sometimes we need to see a Fast and Furious to really appreciate a Slum-dog Millionaire.

"Hmm... Do I keep holding this or scratch that itch?" 
We are loosing out on the surprises around the corner by playing it so safe. We already use great judgement to make a million decisions that really do require us to use our judgement.  Let go, loosen the economist bow tie, and do the extreme… Don’t find out what others think about something and try it yourself. It may be a horrible experience, the worst you ever had, but at least you can lay claim to that opinion. It is all your own and that is definitely not wasted.

 

 

 

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