Q: Online dating isn’t going so well. I’m a 34-year-old professor seeking a relationship. I listed an age range of 18 to 35 on my profile, not because I particularly like 18-year-olds but simply to avoid limiting my options. I messaged a 24-year-old woman, noting that I loved that she “enjoys supporting people who have a purpose and a passion.” She wrote back: “You seem really cool, but the fact that you're considering dating women as young as 18 is a deal-breaker. 18-year-olds aren't people yet. You're a professor. You know that.” She then scolded me for failing to admire that she clearly has purpose and passion — she doesn’t just support those things — but considering my interest in 18-year-olds, purpose and passion probably don’t matter much to me anyway. Huh?! Should I really be faulted for being open-minded?
A: Online dating can be so efficient. It used to be that you’d have to wait to say hello to have your first argument.
This woman probably couldn’t go out with you anyway, as busy as she must be getting the ignition lock replaced on her broom. However, she may have done you a favor. Although most women won’t turn online dating into online berating, many probably share her anger and suspicion at the lower end of your listed age range. But, but…you protest, you’re just trying to be open instead of assuming that every single 18-year-old will be the dating equivalent of going out with a steak in a short skirt.
Your open-mindedness seems to be a rational approach. The problem is, we aren’t the rational animals we smugly insist we are. Research by evolutionary psychologists Martie Haselton and David Buss suggests that we evolved to make protective errors in judgment — erring on the side of perceiving whatever would have been least costly for our survival and mating interests back in the ancestral environment. This makes us prone to believe there’s a snake behind every rustle of a pile of leaves because the embarrassment from shrieking like an idiot would have been less costly than dying from a snakebite. In the mating sphere, women evolved to be “commitment skeptics,” prone to overperceive men as hookup-seeking cads until they prove otherwise. For men, it would have been costly to miss any mating opportunity…leading to a 34-year-old man being “open” to a wide range of women, including a woman only slightly older than some of his socks.
You can turn this into a positive experience in two ways: by thanking your lucky stars that you won’t be the boyfriend she’s ripping into at the supermarket for eyeing the wrong potato and by listing an age range that’s less ire-producing. This actually shouldn’t limit you in the slightest, since you can write to any woman you find attractive — including those who’ll think you’re “like, so much more amazing” than the other “men” they’re dating, because you don’t live with your parents or have a job that requires a paper hat.
Q: I’ve saved some money to get my girlfriend something special for her birthday. I know what she likes at REI, Pottery Barn, and Williams-Sonoma, but nothing feels special enough. Perhaps I’m an idiot for asking you, a stranger, what to get the woman I know and love, but maybe you can point me in the right direction.
A: Too bad the two of you aren’t cats, or you could just come by with a dead cricket between your teeth. But you are wise to think outside the cardboard box. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton write in “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” that the purchases that ultimately make us the happiest are not material things but experiences. They cite research showing that new “stuff” soon stops giving us the same zing, while experiential purchases not only contribute to our sense of self and our connection with others but get more meaningful over time through the stories we tell about them. Also, they never need dusting.
So, instead of deciding between the espresso machine that’ll guess her weight and the one that gets basic cable, think about an experience she’d really love. It could be a Champagne balloon ride or driving a racecar around a track (nascarracingexperience.com). But fret not if these are too pricey. The research suggests that even when people spend just a few dollars, they get more lasting pleasure from an experience than a thing. And even when experiences go wrong, like a romantic picnic that ends in horrible poison oak, they tend to be viewed fondly in hindsight. Your girlfriend may not have asked for a series of hydrocortisone injections for her birthday, but years later, she’ll be laughing with you and friends about that and not the story of how you once got her a bowl from Pottery Barn.
Advice Goddess Radio: Dr. Elizabeth Dunn on how, with science-based spending, money really can buy you happiness.
It’s Amy Alkon’s Advice Goddess Radio — “Nerd your way to a better life!” with the best brains in science solving your love, dating sex, and relationship problems. Listen live every Sunday — http://www.blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon/ — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or listen or download at the link, at iTunes, or on Stitcher.