Horsepower and Happiness – The Wrong Equation?

Editor Neil Johnston At the Vancouver Motorcycle show, I glanced over the ZX-14, 2008 Hayabusa and B-King and set up a date with the Ducati 1098 R for later in the year.  To a one the horsepower figures are astounding, driven upwards by a market with the “more is better” philosophy.  I’ve some bad news for consumers and manufacturers. According to happiness researchers we may have it all wrong.

Happiness research draws on biology, psychology and even economics in the study of what makes us happy.  The answers aren’t always straightforward.  For example, more of a desirable commodity doesn’t make us happier in a linear progression.

Take money for example.  Western culture has the idea that more is always better.  Research suggests otherwise.  According to Daniel Gilbert and his book Stumbling On Happiness, moving from abject poverty to middle class you become much happier. Moving beyond that the increase in happiness isn’t linear.  If you have a reasonable amount of money, then you tend to be happy, more doesn’t increase your happiness.  Double a middle class income, and you don’t become doubly happy.  That brings us to horsepower.

An experienced rider won’t be enthralled with the joy of thrashing a CBR 125R for too long.  Top speed will likely be underwhelming on the local freeways for one.  Double the engine’s output and you will improve your riding experience in most situations, you’ll be happier.  However, happiness research predicts a slowing return on your gains.

By the time you reach the current crop of 135hp at the crank 600cc sportbikes, you’re likely going to be happy with the performance.  Double that output and you won’t have a riding experience that is twice as good.

Where does the “more is better” misconception come from?  According to the happiness types we’re pretty cruddy at predicting our future levels of happiness based on commodity.  That’s in part because humans tend to be good at predicting linear relationships and horrible at curved ones.  So we tend to cast everything as linear, unless we have empirical data in front of us.  This turning us into “more is better” rather than “more is more” thinkers.  Worse, our memory betrays us.

We tend to remember peak experiences.  You may remember the exhilarating twist of the throttle, but not the other droning four hours of riding.  Likely you’ll mis-attribute that rush to horsepower, it’s really more a function of torque.  On top of that you’d be doing getting that special feeling stepping from a 70hp bike, to a 100hp, to a 165hp bike.  The thing is you have the same peak experience with hypothetical power plateau.  You may get happiness out of each jump, but it’s short-lived.

Most events affect us for much less time than you think they will, before you return to your baseline happiness.  You are resilient, swinging back to your natural baseline levels of happiness.  So that means you will be very happy with a 135hp bike for a while, before swinging back to your baseline of riding happiness.   Research shows lottery winners tend to be, on average, as happy as the people who didn’t win the lottery, because they return to their baselines.

There’s another number we should be looking at anyways – torque.  The rotational force that the engine turns out has more to do with the thrill of riding than horsepower anyways.  Informally the British magazine, Bike, found support for this in an article Japan vs. Bike Mag, May 2005, by having riders compare a stock Yamaha R6 to one detuned for more torque in the mid-range and less horsepower.  All riders, racers and roaders, preferred the detuned bike.  That comes down to usability and the thrill of acceleration associated with increased torque.

So what does make for happy riding?  Can we outsmart the “more is better” philosophy that’s built into our very genetic make up?  Can we outwit marketing machines that pray on this genetic failing by introducing more power in a nonsensical horsepower war?  Thankfully, yes.

Human beings are social animals, and according to Gilbert and his fellow researchers, almost all of our happiness comes from social interactions and relationships. That means beyond a certain threshold of ride-ability, you’re better off pouring your money into group rides, coffee runs and touring with friends, than worrying about buying a bike with the most horsepower.

Luckily, along side the high-huff wonders, we’re in a market that is featuring the resurgence of entertaining and usable mid-sized bikes.  That and a few friends and we may have the equation for riding happiness.


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