The Wiki Man

You can buy happiness. Here’s how…

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

If you are reading this article online, perhaps you could go to the comments section and let us know what single slightly unusual item you have bought which has brought you the most reliable and lasting happiness.

Perverse answers are welcome, of course, but I am not so interested in suggestions such as ‘a Thai bride’ or ‘a brewery’ or ‘“The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer’. What I am hoping for is a list of slightly unusual domestic or practical items which you might have bought on a whim or as a slight extravagance but which subsequently you found surprisingly delightful or life-changing to the point of boring your friends about them.

My first two suggestions would be the air fryer (a device which fries food without using oil) and an ice-making machine which sits in the kitchen making ice cubes so I can make a gin and tonic in under a minute.


But far above even these two devices on the happiness-per-pound-spent graph would come a thing called a ‘mattress topper’. Like the film The Shawshank Redemption, I suspect this marvellous item has been slow to catch on because it has been given a silly name: you feel a bit daft recommending it to your friends. If you do summon up the courage to ask ‘Have you got a mattress topper?’ most people will look bemused — but 5 to 10 per cent become highly animated ‘Best thing I’ve ever bought changes your life, etc…’

Just to explain, these devices are a kind of under-duvet. They strap on top of your mattress and create a lenient, downy layer of squidginess between the mattress and the lower sheet. They are available in down, memory-foam and lambswool variants in prices varying from about £35 to £200 and up. (Comparison is difficult, so I am not honestly sure if there is much point in buying the more expensive kinds.) As well as being luxurious, they seem significantly to improve the quality of sleep.

Now at this point you are wondering ‘Why am I reading this? This guy who works for an advertising agency has clearly been paid by a mattress-topper manufacturer to act as some kind of corporate shill. Hell, if I want the company of people who pretend to be excited about things for the purposes of their own material self–interest, I can simply visit a prostitute or read some travel journalism.’

I can assure you this is not the case here. There is no prospect of anyone paying me to advertise mattress toppers, however life-changing they may be. You see, one of the problems of hyper-efficient market capitalism is that copying products is now so fast and easy that every new market category rapidly fragments into hundreds of competing manufacturers. There is no interest in any one of them promoting the category, since their own share of any resulting growth in sales of the item would be so small. Online retail makes this worse still; whereas Argos or Peter Jones might only stock six mattress toppers, an online store can offer several hundred.

Thirty years ago, one of the incentives for creating and promoting a new idea was that, even if the idea was unpatentable, you enjoyed an effective monopoly for a few years while competitors caught up — a reward for innovation known as ‘Schumpeterian rent’. Your name might even become indelibly linked with your innovation, like Hoover or Dyson. In Australia duvets are still called Doonas after the brand name (from the Norwegian dyne?) of the first company to introduce down bedding down under.

Perfect competition isn’t always good. The faster and easier it is to copy new products, the less rewarding it is to develop them in the first place.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
  • transponder

    I wouldn’t want those squishy things under my bedsheet (yes, hello, it’s me). I don’t like the POW-hardness of the mattress alone but a little on top is enough. (Said the bishop to the gamine novice….)

    Rice cooker. But more than that by far: the bread machine. Until I learned that carbs are death, which is a bore but I suppose I’ll remain my sexy taut self by not using it.

    Kindle. Love it. HOURS of boredom walking Dog spared by the Kindle. Usually on the book telling me that carbs are death and I shouldn’t use the rice cooker or bread machine, and my paltry mattress pad harbours god knows what beneath the sheet.

    Wine. Does that count? It’s an invention, ain’t it? An agricultural product, yeronner, pure as the sunshiny day. But by golly it’s bucked me up in a tight spot (criminal attacks, love pain, existential disappointment — is there anything I couldn’t name???).

  • Kitty MLB

    Can you buy happiness. Hmmm !
    You can obtain short term pleasure from buying some possession or the other,
    such as a electric foot warmer ( they do exist ) the latest luxury of something that
    makes life more easy.
    Buying a new pet brings happiness. Mind you the cat we had as a child was not
    happy, she run away for a year, and then turned up looking somewhat lofty
    and required feeding-Are you just speaking of one way happiness ?
    You can read a book in front of a peat fire drinking a
    big G%T or decent Claret – or going for a walk through a bluebell wood in spring Those are contentment, that word, and love make the soul sing
    Do people become emotionally attached to objects that you can replace,
    you feel happiness when someone buys you something. But that has
    more to do with the person giving you the gift then the actual gift its self.
    If someone is unhappy- buying whatever will not change that fact…

  • E Hart

    No, you can’t buy happiness. It’s a feeling that humans get from sensing the thrill of knowing what it is to be alive (as distinct from being conscious). It has no substance and cannot be quantified or tabulated – not by the Gini index, crass surveys, bags of crap, drugs or large quantities of hooch. Mmm…

    This “topper” sounds like a bloody nightmare. Ever since top sheets and blankets were given the heave-ho by continental quilts, we’ve stood as much chance of broiling in our own body heat as getting a good night’s kip. They are a vile invention, which – like the aforementioned quilt and its co-conspirators, 24hr TV, double glazing, fitted carpets and the Rangoon setting on the central heating thermostat – is slowly killing us in our own four-walled final solution.

    As for the item which has given me the greatest sense of at-one-ment – it’s got to be Wahl hair clipper. A bargain purchased for £19 years ago. Real American quality and built to last. Which it has. It works perfectly with a low reassuring buzz unlike is successor which gives out a high pitched whine and rattles as well as vibrates. It also has a bona fide reason to be. Then, it would have to be the dinner jacket. Why aren’t all jackets lined with satin or silk satin? This a piece of genius which is not only comfortable to wear it actually facilitates movement. After that, it would have to be the sound and design of the Triumph Bonneville c.1973. Last, but not least, it’s Shepherd Neame Masterbrew; a deliciously tangy beer which you can drink lots of without becoming a homicidal maniac. Oh, I forget, the scythe, sickle and the hammer – all ideas/manufactures which date from the Paleolithic and are perfectly designed and suited to their function.

    The reason why Dyson will never be Hoover is because Hoover hoovers and Dyson doesn’t. I’ve always been intrigued by how it can wrestle a sock into the tube but pushes balls of fluff across the floor like miniature ping-pong balls. I call that a design flaw. After all, only the most chaotic household needs to Dyson-up socks in volume.

    One of the truly errant things about the market is that it so often encourages people to believe that they need what they don’t. Classic examples of this are the anal obsessive Corby trouser press (Who needs a knife-edged crease in their trousers?); uselessly impractical multi-purpose tools and that invitation to the Kingdom of the Lard-Arse – the Goblin Teasmade. All utterly pointless and illogical. If we don’t have to do anything, we will eventually cease to be.

    • rorysutherland

      Agree on almost anything – but you are surely unfair to the Goblin.

      I have used technology to solve the Rangoon problem – remote controlled central heating (Hive, Nest, etc) means you tend to use the heating very sparingly, rather than overheating by default.

      • E Hart

        I don’t know. I put it with the Lazy Boy recliner, K-Tel’s Brush-o-matic, the “dream home”, Tom-Tom and more of less anything with a whining electric motor, such as the electric drill and the Strimmer. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to drill a hole in a wall, started with a hole that’s too small and ended up with one that’s about an inch and half in diameter.

        • transponder

          But you must admit that the cordless drill is a wonder?!

          • E Hart

            It’s a wonderful idea, all right. I’ve always found that my Chinese-made Maoist hand-drill has to come into play because the manganese-steel or tungsten carbide bits just can’t cope with bricks of any composition. Being particularly poorly milled, it does have a tendency to stick before releasing in time to skin my knuckles on the shaft. Then, there is all that hideous high-pitched whining, that’s if you’ve remembered to charge it. There is also an implication with the electric drill that everything has to be done in an instant. What’s the hurry? It surely can’t be that there is anything worth watching on the television or that the shopping mall or high street will be any more interesting than when you were last down there.

          • transponder

            Mm. So you’re against the cordless drill or you’re for it?

          • E Hart

            I’d have to say, against. I’ve had too many experiences of them ruining plaster and the bloody things can’t hold a charge etc.

          • transponder

            Hmm. I must have an extra good one, then!

      • Honig

        Then Rory how do you manage to control your body heat in bed? with blankets you can layer, cast off or pull on. With duvets you either freeze or boil. And don’t tell us you have some gizmo that automatically changes your bedroom temperature to counter changes to your body temperature through the night!

        • rorysutherland

          I find myself a little trapped by a blanket, whereas with the dyne you can stuck a leg out of bed and use it as a cooling fin to regulate your body-heat, a bit like a reptile.

          • transponder

            Exactly. And they feel so lovely.

          • Honig

            I think that clinches my case against the dyne/duvet! It took us millions of years to emerge from the primeval swamp, millions more to shed our reptilian skins and we are to use our legs as cooling fins? The dyne/duvet presumably evolved from stone age animal skin/fur wraps. Since then man has learned how to make wool and cotton. But the Nordics have persuaded large parts of the world to revert to using animal matter (feathers) for blankets and even, bless them, horse hair for mattresses (Hästens). And did I mention the hours it takes to change a duvet/dyne cover? Disinvent this contribution to human misery!

          • transponder

            Some people just can’t cope with luxury: and you’re one of them. (Shakes head, sips cheap but nice weekday Merlot and delicious carbonated natural Florida spring water.)

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Thought it was only cultural imperialists and HMG (but I repeat myself) that still used Rangoon. You call Yangon hot? Try Ho Chi Minh City for a real hardship posting.
      “Ship me somewheres east of Suez
      Where the best is like the worst…”
      Jack, Japan Alps

      • E Hart

        “In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun,
        They put their Scotch or Rye down, and lie down…” Noel Coward.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Flash to 21st century reality, E.

          • E Hart

            I’m quite happy where I am thank you. To quote another songwriter from a bygone era – “anything goes”. I get your drift, though, I draw the line at K-e-e-n-yah, N-y-a-r-s-eland, U-r-anus…

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Face it, Noel Coward can`t hold a candle to Kipling.
            “Take up the white man`s burden
            Send forth the best you breed …”

          • E Hart

            I’m happy to like both of them.

    • transponder

      What’s wrong with Timothy Taylor Landlord? Or any old IPA, come to that?

      • E Hart

        In this regard, I am always open to new challenges.

        • transponder

          Heh heh heh — good lad!

  • cerebralka

    I love cooking so most of my must-have items are kitchen-related (which seems to be the pattern here). Among these, by far my favourite are herbs in a pot, bought at the local supermarket. I tend to develop a bit of an emotional relationship with my plants, so they bring me satisfaction far beyond their mere utility.

  • Sean Grainger

    Buying happiness was an interesting question for the pub yesterday after I had done the Sunday Times cryptic and ‘read’ the paper. I got to three in the bailiwick of the question. When I was with ‘the woman I wish I had never met’ we used to find ourselves in Harrods on Saturday before going to the much lamented Bill Bentley’s in Beauchamp Place for several glasses of lunch. One morning we bought his-and-hers (khaki and red) parachute silk shoulder bags. I didn’t think much about it at the time, it was just a gewgaw, but fairly quickly it became indispensable. Apart from becoming my daily paraphernalia container it was for 20 years pressed into service as an end of the day ski boot bag so I could enjoy that best of moments — boots off — in Klosters rather than having to wait till Davos. I still have it. It is much repaired because despite spending a long time including contacting YKK the zipper supplier I failed to trace the maker to get a replacement.

    The second came into my life when a mate took me to the Thames TV demise equipment auction — utter bliss — where among other things I got a Revox A-series reel-to-reel. This kept me purring with contentment for 15 years as I taped Stuart Colman’s Capital Gold rock show and Paul Jones’s Jazzfm blues and R&B show for onward dubbing to C90 compilation cassettes that formed/form the indispensable core of my listening. Alas now the ultimate target is the iPod not the Walkman (although I still occasionally use and prefer the latter) it has fallen into permanent disuse. As a lot of men love their auto ditto me and my Revox which was diligently cleaned and maintained like a Range Rover.

    The more mundane third came when another mate who was dossing chez nous being between wives suggested getting ‘proper’ frying pans i.e. the mild steel variety which as I don’t expect I have to tell you are if treated right more non-stick than non-stick ones. I still have those too. Of course buying them in Pages necessitated lengthy visits to The French to celebrate.

  • Honig

    Rory
    These are called bäddmadrass in Sweden and have existed since they started sleeping at home instead of raping and pillaging abroad. I agree they add to the sum of human happiness. However what about that Scandinavian invention that detracts from human happiness, the dreaded duvet? That would be top of my list of things to be disinvented.
    in return I offer this wonderful gadget I bought for my wife on the spur of the moment. She laughed in my face but has used it every day for the last 35 years. If you make tea with leaves and not bags (another accursed invention) it changes your life. Very difficult to find – try googling “pivoted tea sieve”
    http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.tastesoftorrisholme.co.uk/ekmps/shops/tastesoftorris/images/stainless-steel-pivoted-tea-leaf-strainer-sieve-stand-2171-p.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.tastesoftorrisholme.co.uk/stainless-steel-pivoted-tea-leaf-strainer-sieve–stand-2171-p.asp&h=229&w=273&tbnid=7acfbLy_SI8H-M:&zoom=1&docid=q-A7G3_HW_61wM&hl=en&ei=w5ZLU_7SKav64QTPyoHQDg&tbm=isch&client=safari&ved=0CDsQhBwwAQ

    • transponder

      What on earth do you have against the duvet? I wanted one all my life and my parents, having moved away from England, had no clue, and bought me lumpy polyester bedspreads instead. Dire. Now it’s feathers all the way and duvets with their feathery warm loft when nights are cold (which in Florida ain’t that often, but it’s not summer ALL the time).

  • The Bellman

    Falke No. 12 Sea Island cotton socks in navy blue. Bought in Harvey Nichols in Dubai because I had forgotten to pack socks for a week-long trip to Delhi, and the only socks available that didn’t look like the sort of thing worn by people who think it appropriate to express a sense of humour via their clothes.

    But not only are they very low-key – they are cool in summer and warm in winter, and incredibly hard-wearing. Despite the GBP20 price tag (2009), they are much better value than any others I have ever tried.

    Needless to say, Falke stopped making them about two years ago.

    • rorysutherland

      I have one Sea Island cotton shirt which I bought second-hand but barely used (so they said) on eBay. Again, magically good.

    • transponder

      Ain’t it always the way.

  • Stuart Williams

    The best gadget/invention ever for me and almost everyone who has used them is :
    The electronic bidet toilet seat also known as ‘Washlet’ from Toto (Japan).
    Using them one feels civilization has moved to a new higher level.

    • rorysutherland

      I want a Japanese loo – and there is even a Toto showroom in Farringdon now. But I suspect most people outside Japan are simply too embarrassed to buy them.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        The old Washlet? Even have those in motorway service halts (parking area). How long do you think they`d last in crime capital UK? Ten minutes, tops. As an import, voltage can be something of an issue, so don`t “iss on the transformer. Try sourcing from Korea.
        Oh, and they can freeze up in winter if you leave the place unoccupied.
        Jack, Japan Alps

      • transponder

        Perhaps there’s a feeling that water is like blowing kisses instead of the real thing? Never mind.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          You can adjust the water temperature.

          • transponder

            That’s not what I meant. Never mind.

          • rorysutherland
          • transponder

            I’ll have the pretty wood one. The Toto model looks as though it’s missing eyes, a nose, and two perky ears either side!

  • Juliet Zh

    a lover, you can’t buy…:)

  • Jules

    Yes, I totally agree with mattress toppers – they do add to the sum of my nocturnal happiness. Beyond this, I bought a wonderful broom in Asia made from a natural, dried material (some kind of long, firm but flexible grass-like stalks) which is far better than the more common western broom fibres made from nylon or other industrially produced material . Its fan-like shape is comprehensive, and its firm springiness captures everything. A joy to use.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Money can`t buy you happiness …”
    Complete this one-liner.

    • transponder

      Or: I’d rather be rich and comfortably, beautifully tragic than poor and feel like a wretch.

  • EF

    The thing I’ve bought that has given me the most happiness: my boxer dog. Beautiful, athletic, loving and faithful. And of course my yearly subscription to The Spekkie!

  • doctorseraphicus

    Two things spring to my mind immediately. First, a Hayter Harrier 41 lawnmower (without autodrive); coupled with the realisation that I needed to sow a more durable kind of grass seed and cut it less short than I would a putting green, my lawn mower has given me years of pleasure. Secondly, a Kamei Delphin 340 roofbox: no more huffing and puffing and generally losing my cool trying to ram everything into the boot of the car for a family holiday: just feed it all into the ravening maw of the roofbox. Bliss!

    • transponder

      my lawn mower has given me years of pleasure.

      I love it. A man that takes delight in needful, efficient things. And ends up with a beautiful garden.

  • El_Sid

    Things like wine and proper kitchen knives are too easy, but in the spirit of the article :

    A made-to-measure suit. It seems I’m a slightly funny shape so most off-the-peg clothes don’t fit me that well, my first proper suit was just bliss.

    A double duvet that’s one size too big for the bed – saves a lot of fighting.

    An asparagus steamer.

    Proper spiral corkscrews

    An insulated backpack from Carrefour, can be used as a normal backpack but is much easier to carry than a coolbox when you have to walk a distance to the cricket or other picnic.

  • Gav Gray

    A family-size George Foreman grill. As a gym junkie/strength athlete I eat an absurd amount of meat. I also hate cooking, and the George is very easy to use. I bought it in 2006 for $160 (Australian). I’ve used it 3 times per week since I bought it, and estimate I’ve cooked approximately 1200KG of meat (mostly chicken). It has served me so well that I haven’t used an oven since buying it. About 18 months ago, the timer stopped working – but then magically started working again about 6 months ago.

    This work horse is the most reliable device known to man, and I suspect it will even outlive me. I went to buy one as a gift for a family member a couple of years ago. But unfortunately the newer models look extremely cheap and flimsy.

    • transponder

      Grilled chicken is heavenly.

      Your views on the Big Green Egg? The Weber grill in any charcoal version? What about grilled pineapple (part of tonight’s dinner and last night’s, too)?

      • AndyB

        I’ve had a BGE for about 4 years now – great fun. Tried everything from pizza to slow smoking – much trial and error but would highly recommend one. Did smoked, roasted cauliflower this weekend to go in a chicken casserole. Lovely.

        • transponder

          Thanks — I just read your comment to my husband who would like to have one eventually. (Right now he’s making do pretty handsomely with a charcoal Weber grill.)

  • TheGrouse

    Certainly approve of many of the suggestions here particularly those involving (large) dogs, duvets and claret. One recent higher tech purchase for me has been a digital music controller – mine is the pioneer ddj but vestax and others are in the same game.
    Simply plug in your laptop and into the aux feed on your hifi and you have your disk jockey set up but not in a way that would trouble the authorities.

  • Dale Ingram

    Becoming a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). £30 can change your life forever. … As an activist for Britain’s pubs, my work has taken me from housing estates to Parliament and everywhere in between. It’s an education. Fascinating and (more or less) free. You can support the cause by joining too.

  • LMes359

    This is not a product but rather a service that I am choosing to talk about. A Hotel and Restaurant based in Cornwall, UK to be precise. I shall not mention the name because I am not trying to advertise it. The reason for my writing about it is simply because I very much appreciate its existence. It is one of the very few remaining Hotels (family run) that still boasts truly wonderful character and history within and has an effortless and genuine atmosphere every time I visit. I know the owners very well as a result of years of staying there, but the personal touch that I have felt ever since the first day I stayed there is just unique, I seriously think this is a rare example as it seems this is becoming lesser the case every day as the chains continue to grow and take over. Another interesting note just for you Rory, G.K Chesterton actually stayed at the Hotel and the owner showed me his signature in one of the old residents book along with George Bernard Shaw and King George V signatures, it had be gobsmacked! It would be interesting to find out if anyone else has similar examples of Hotels matching this sort of description?

  • Nathan U

    My wireless presenter (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FPGP4U/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) and extra phone charge cable (for my office). Between these two items, life has been more efficient and easier. No more meandering while bloviating to the audience and running to the computer to change the slide after realizing that I went to far ahead.

  • Nathan U

    My wireless presenter (http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ
    and extra phone charge cable (for my office). Between these two items,
    life has been more efficient and easier. No more meandering while
    bloviating to the audience and running to the computer to change the
    slide after realizing that I went to far ahead.

Close