What can pizza parties tell us about happiness?

Can you put a number on happiness? DiGiorno can


Can you put a number on happiness? DiGiorno can


That corporations hoping to market to us are going to be increasingly interested in the value of our emotional lives.

There’s a saying among literary types that “happiness writes white.” It means that, while poets and philosophers spill endless ink over suffering and misery, pure, unadulterated joy somehow escapes us. After all, what can you say about happiness, really? Isn’t part of joy the way it defies language, the way some feelings can’t be expressed as much as experienced? As Emily Dickinson put it:
Emily Dickinson: I think to live—may be a Bliss—
For Dickinson, the moments when we’re most alive—to
Live, with an uppercase L—elude not only concrete articulation, but comprehension.

And yet where Dickinson failed, DiGiorno, the Nestle-owned frozen pizza company, thinks it can succeed.

In a new promotion, “The Power of Pizza,” DiGiorno tries to put happiness into words—or at least into numbers. “It’s no secret that pizza makes us happy,” the company writes in a press release. “But has anyone ever asked why?” (The footnote points to what we already “know:” that pizza makes 88 percent of people happy, according to a study funded by DiGiorno.) The “Power of Pizza,” which the company is calling a “social experiment,” purports to find out what it is about pizza that delights us, and exactly how much it elevates mood, down to the percentage point.  

Here’s how the experiment worked. DiGiorno brought volunteers into a space resembling a Manhattan loft, with one key difference: there were more than 40 cameras in it. The company then asked three different groups of eight young people to have a party inside. All they had to do was agree to be filmed, cook a DiGiorno pizza, eat it, and otherwise do what they’d normally do on a Saturday night. (Minus, I guess, the booze and vials of nose beers.)


“With the help of facial recognition and emotion-tracking software, DIGIORNO analyzed footage to identify patterns in emotion. ‘Joy’ was classified based on indicators of happiness like smiles and eye movements.”

According to an annotated graph plotting pleasure across time, the participants chatted and joked. They did impersonations and played charades. One subject taught another to juggle. They “talked hair.” All the while, the cameras were watching—and using Google’s Vision API to scan each person’s face every five seconds. Vision measured joy, sorrow, anger, and fear, rating each emotion on a scale from 0 to 4. Over the course of the night, DiGiorno says it got a clear sense of when happiness ebbed and flowed within the room. And the results are pretty interesting, though not for the reason DiGiorno wants them to be.

Unsurprisingly, the “experiment” found that eating pizza made everyone happier: 11 percent happier, to be exact. But that’s not the figure DiGiorno wants us to dwell on. It’s claiming that the biggest spikes in happiness occurred earlier in the night—not during dinner, but before it. In a press release, the company charts it out this way:

  • Pizza Prep: When pizza went into the oven, everyone’s mood improved, with joy increasing up to 18 percentage points.
  • That Smells Great: As smell permeated the room, partygoers were happiest, with joy increasing up to 24 percentage points.
  • It’s Ready: Taking pizza out of the oven also had significant impact on the moods of partygoers, with an increase in joy up to 20 percentage points.
  • Serving up Slices: When hosts cut the pizza, partygoers experienced up to an 11 percentage point increase in joy.
  • Eating Pizza: As partygoers took their first bite and began eating pizza, increase in joy went up to 11 percentage points.

As DiGiorno tells it, people were actually happiest as the smell of pizza baking “permeated the room,” a sensation that made them 24 percent happier than when they walked in the door. At first, it might seem odd that DiGiorno’s calling attention to the fact that the emotional climax from the meal itself was not the main event. You might extrapolate that the food smelled better than it tasted, that it didn’t live up to expectations.


Joy, as it rose and fell during an evening with DiGiorno

But you could also read something else into the results, such as they are: that humans are romantic creatures, craving desire above satiation; that we love anticipation more than the moment of arrival itself. And that’s what DiGiorno would like you to believe, because it’s trying to drive home the notion that, when it comes to eating, cooking is the fun part (even if cooking consists only of mindlessly sliding a frozen pie into a pre-heated oven). Maybe pizza makes 88 percent of people happy, but we’re happier with pizza in the oven than we are with slices in our mouths.

“So here’s what we learned,” says the narrator towards the end of one of the promo videos bundled with “The Power of Pizza.” “In the end, the joy of pizza is more than a taste. It’s a sight. It’s a smell. It’s an experience. And it all starts when you put it in the oven.”

That’s a great pitch for DiGiorno to make, considering the competition: Domino’s, Papa John’s, and any other delivery restaurant willing to bring a fully-cooked pizza to your door. What DiGiorno wants you to ponder is that, when you order delivery, you’re actually skipping out on the thing you love most about pizza in the first place. Now, that may not actually be true. Though scientific study of appetite and emotion still has a long way to go, at least some research suggests that pleasure peaks during the meal, right before satiation. But science isn’t the point. What matters is the message: The part of frozen pizza you—and your guests—have always dreaded, the cooking and the waiting, is actually the best part.

That’s a pretty amazing rhetorical gesture. Remember “swift boating,” which, unfortunately for Senator John Kerry, meant to take a politician’s greatest asset and turn it into a weakness? Maybe “DiGiornoing” is to take a product’s worst characteristic and boldly reframe it as its primary strength.

It’s not much of a stretch to see how our faces can be a source of valuable marketing information for companies who want to study what we like.

Probably the most interesting thing about “The Power of Pizza,” though, is the way it uses science to appeal to our emotions. Not that the ad actually is science. As science, it gets an F. Despite a methodology section of sorts at the end of the press release, and lots of pseudo-scientific jargon (“social experiment,” “high-resolution cameras,” and “observable increases in joy”), this is not a peer-reviewed study. We don’t know if the participants were “real people” or paid actors. We don’t even know, really, if there were results to study. For all we know, the experiment’s outcome was pre-ordained. Make no mistake, this is marketing through and through.

Still, it’s fascinating that a company of this stature—and Nestle is one of the biggest food companies in the world—feels that the best way to appeal to us is through the appearance of science. That we’ll believe the claims made about food and friendship, pleasure and desire, when they are presented to us by way of numbers. That we’ll be 24 percent happier with a DiGiorno pizza bubbling in the oven.

The evidence suggests that corporations are going to be increasingly interested in our emotional lives.

That’s silly, of course. Isn’t there something ludicrous about characterizing our emotions this way? As if we can map the way we feel with such scientific certainty? As though we really are completely open books? Maybe so. But that’s not going to stop companies from doing it. The evidence suggests that corporations are going to be increasingly interested in our emotional lives. Computer algorithms—like the the Google Vision software used by DiGiorno—have been watching us for years, learning to decode the lift of an eyebrow, the way lips form an o of surprise. It’s not much of a stretch to see how our faces can be a source of valuable marketing information for companies who want to study what we like. Soon, they’ll do it through our laptop cams as we watch YouTube ads for pizza. Or through home devices like Amazon’s new Echo Look, which, as it helps you to decide what to buy next, is always watching—especially when your friends come over for pizza.

I guess I’m with Emily Dickinson on this one. It could be just my knee-jerk, humanities-major reaction, but I believe we’re fundamentally mysterious, that our faces don’t always explain how we feel, that you could spend a lifetime trying to put some emotions into words, and that people will always, always surprise us. That’s neither here nor there, though. Very soon, our emotional lives are going to be big business—no matter how you slice it.

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.