Study: Fast-Food Culture Hinders Our Ability to Savor Life

Subjects exposed to images of fast food seemed less able to enjoy simple pleasures.
(Calgary Reviews/flickr)

Problem: When my cousin was little and eating her food way too fast, my aunt and uncle used to instruct her to “savor” it. I often do not follow this very sound advice myself, sometimes eating so fast that I have to stop and take a drink of water just to force the accumulated food lump down my throat, but, different strokes.

The true crossroads of food and impatience, of course, can be found at any local fast food restaurant, where the burger you will soon suffocate yourself with appears in five minutes, yet somehow, still, too slowly. Standing under the fluorescent lights at a McDonald’s counter, while pleasurable in its own way, is pretty much the opposite of long walks where you take stock of your life, savor the outdoors, look at some birds. Researchers at the University of Toronto wanted to know if the presence of fast food “undermines people’s ability to experience happiness from savoring pleasurable experiences,” and answered that question in a recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Methodology: First, researchers examined the concentration of fast food restaurants in 280 participants’ neighborhoods (by zip code). The participants had completed an online survey that measured their tendency to savor (or not) their emotional responses to pleasant experiences.

To see what effect familiar fast food packaging would have, participants were shown several neutral photos and pictures of McDonald’s food either in its original packaging, or unwrapped and sitting on a ceramic plate. Then they rated their happiness. Some people saw beautiful nature photographs before rating their happiness, some didn’t.

Lastly, to measure impatience, participants listened to an aria and reported how long they thought it was—the idea being that people who feel impatient perceive time to be moving more slowly. Before listening, they completed the same task from the second study, where some saw fast food packaging and some didn’t.

Results: All three studies found an association between exposure to fast food and a tendency not to savor experiences. The higher the fast food restaurant concentration in a neighborhood, the less likely its residents were to stop and smell the roses (likely smelling hamburgers instead).

Exposure to fast food images did not affect people’s happiness unless they were given the opportunity to savor beautiful nature pictures, showing “that fast-food symbols reduce savoring but do not dampen happiness.” And in the last study, the opera aria seemed longer to people exposed to fast food pictures, suggesting that they were feeling more impatient than people who didn’t see fast food.

Implications:  The ability to appreciate small moments of pleasure has been linked to happiness, and this study shows that exposure to the impatient, ultra-efficient culture of the fast-food industry might dampen that ability. “The impatience activated by exposure to fast food runs counter to mindfully staying in the moment to savor,” the study reads. “Undermining people’s ability to derive pleasure from everyday joys could exert a significant long-term negative effect on people’s experienced happiness.” So, chew slower, I guess.

The study, "Too Impatient to Smell the Roses: Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness," appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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