The Science of the Dolce Vita, by Davide D'Alessandro
6 March 2013

Is there a science to the famed Italian dolce vita? At first glance, the question might seem nonsensical. What on earth could stiff academics in white lab coats have to do with a culture studded with pleasure and beauty? More than meets the eye, it turns out. Rigorous studies by psychologists in North America indicate that there is indeed a scientific underpinning to the dolce vita, the Italian hedonistic lifestyle celebrated in Federico Fellini’s 1960 cinematic masterpiece set on Rome’s glorious Via Veneto. The allure of the dolce vita has grown unstoppably and today droves of tourists mercilessly descend upon Italy for a taste of that sweet life. Why, then, do so many visitors to the mecca of pleasure fail to experience the wonders of the dolce vita? The answer, I submit, lies in psychological research.

Today well-meaning, if scientifically uninformed, writers abound, each advocating a path to a single coveted goal – happiness. Fortunately, these writers have been joined by top-rank academic investigators who are clarifying what actually does make us happy, as opposed to what we think makes us happy but ultimately disappoints. Among their conclusions is that regularly savouring little things, like a superb coffee or an artisanal ice cream, tends to promote happiness more effectively than does the acquisition of big things like a new car or a flat-screen television, despite the slick advertising campaigns for items of the kind.

Italians have known this all along. Their lifestyle is made up of small behaviours that mete out frequent micro-bursts of happiness. Think for a moment of the wonders of the Italian café, or bar, of the passion brought to bear on Italian meals, of the revered Italian gelato, of the Italian flair for dress, and of the pleasures of the evening passeggiata. The dolce vita consists of small things like these. Making the most of such seemingly easy-access joys is not, however, quite as straightforward as you might guess. These little pieces of Italian culture are deceptively elusive. Teensy as they may be, they are governed by rigid procedures, or what psychologists call “social scripts” that Italians collectively ordain and to which they fiercely adhere. Most visitors remain unaware of the importance of such social scripts and consequently miss out. 

Orthodox travel guidebooks for Italy are the culprits, I think. These guidebooks sing the praises of Michelangelo’s Davide, they offer walking tours of Trastevere, and they provide the details you will need to hire a gondolier. Other works, self-styled as Italian “survival guides,” have always made me chuckle; I wonder how many tourists to Italy have found the boot-shaped peninsula to be a difficult place in which to survive. If you're seeking rote lists of attractions or what to do if you misplace your passport, are taking a train, or need to make a telephone call, then most of these traditional guidebooks will fit the bill. If instead you are seeking a resource that offers a generous portion of practicality paired with a modicum of cultural sensitivity to help you do the little things that Italians do best every day, and that visitors strive to do themselves, often in vain, to get a taste of the true dolce vita, then orthodox guidebooks will disappoint.

Tourists in Italy would do well to consider the notion that there are two Italies. I like to imagine them as concentric circles. The outer circle is the Italy easily accessible by most travelers who have engaged in at least a minimal amount of standard preparation. This is the Italy of supreme antiquities and artistic masterpieces, of stunning landscapes and unrivalled architecture, of sporty Vespas and ultrachic design. No slouch, this Italy that draws armies of visitors year-round, and rightfully so. 

But there is another Italy just below the surface, an Italy that is tantalizingly advertised to foreigners, that is deceptively tricky to engage, and that is cruelly missed by most. This is the Italy of social finesse and interpersonal warmth, of impeccable gastronomy and unsurpassable coffee, of meandering strolls and crafted ice cream. We all adore this second Italy, that of the  dolce vita, and indeed for many visitors it is the primary impetus for their voyage. But unlike the first, outer Italy, this inner land rewards only those relatively few travelers who have dug below the surface and honed some rare skills. Ideally, such skills would be sharpened by virtue of sheer practice over successive visits. My favourite metaphor (but not my wife’s) is that Italy is a sensuous, refined courtesan who coyly reveals her wonders, one at a time, over repeated encounters with her returning suitors. Unfortunately, most of us do not have frequent opportunities to travel to Italy. What I propose, then, is a guide to help visitors crack the code of the dolce vita.

Tourists who wish to partake in the less accessible but highly coveted delights of Italy must come to understand that Italians have a unique approach to their use of the rules of daily activities. There is a social script for waiting in line at the post office, a social script for ordering un caffè, a social script for negotiating a traffic light. What distinguishes Italian social scripts from those of other countries are the two disparate ways in which they are followed. They are either skilfully ignored (as often is the case at the post office and traffic light) or religiously upheld. This latter category, the social scripts that Italians vigorously follow, includes the very scripts that visitors can benefit from knowing because they allow access to the second, inner Italy – how to order a coffee at an Italian bar, how to engage in daily social pleasantries, how to construct a meal.

Alas, most tourists, even those who have done their basic homework with mainstream guidebooks, remain unaware of these fundamental rules that dictate everyday Italian life.  Consequently, many travelers to Italy face the dilemma of either bumbling ignorantly through what ought to be a superlative experience to the point where discomfort and anxiety rise and pleasure is lost, or avoiding the experience altogether.  Both of these outcomes are a shame in a country with so much hedonism to offer.  My goal, then, is to bring to light these unwritten but crucial social scripts so that visitors to Italy can experience well the little, inner joys of Italian culture.

The emphasis on how to do the little things well is deliberate. On my many trips to Italy, I have been fortunate to crisscross the country, from the Alps to Sicily, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Adriatic. I have eagerly visited most of the big things that tourists are supposed to visit, often visiting the same sites on many different occasions. These sites are stunning and worth every effort. Make no mistake – visits to Italy would be incomplete without thoughtful, informed stops at the Pantheon, St. Mark’s Basilica, or Pompeii. Visit these places and revel in their glories, using the many conventional guidebooks that are available to provide you with the details you need. Once I'm home again, though, I most often find a smile creeping across my face when I reminisce about the little things that I experienced in the inner Italy – that gelato, that passeggiata, that perfect caffè.

This really should not surprise us too much. Social psychologists have been researching the science of happiness to try to determine what really are the ingredients for a joyful life, a modern version of the dolce vita, in contrast to the things that we think will make us happy but that ultimately underwhelm in generating well-being.[1] As a clinical psychologist with a mandate to help people lead more satisfying lives, my favourite finding from their work is that little things give you a disproportionately powerful psychological bang for your buck. Sure, that new car will make you feel happy for a while, and so it should given what you shelled out for it, but, we tend to overestimate how happy the big things will make us, and the positive feelings that big things impart tend to fade rather quickly over time. 

Little things enjoyed more frequently play the role of the tortoise in a psychological marathon against the big hare: they don’t look promising at first as sources of contentment, but they have staying power, and they tend to outperform the big things that poop out after an initial happiness sprint. Italians seem to run this psychological marathon exceptionally well. Their awareness that regularly engaging in the little pleasant things that life has to offer boosts and maintains happiness -- an awareness forged long before scientists entered the field -- is for me the driving force behind an authentic dolce vita.

Seekers of the sweet life, unite! With this psychological knowledge under our belts, let us embrace the refinement of Italian social graces, the virtuoso performances found in the Italian bar, the joys of Italian food and drink, the pleasures of elegant Italian dress, the spirit of the Italian evening stroll, and the glories of gelato, for these are the elements of the Italian lifestyle that are most desirable, available, and relevant to foreigners. At first glance, this might seem to be an odd hodgepodge of topics that few people would deem required information for an Italian vacation, but visitors to Italy who take the time to read up on these little things and experience them will be well rewarded. My aim is to help you engage in the simple, small pleasures of Italy with some confidence so that you may have a sense of mastery and enjoyment that will long outlast your return home.

Perhaps the best news comes last. None of these beloved elements of the dolce vita is particularly expensive, and most are downright cheap, if not free. And so they should be – we are talking about little things, after all.

[1] For excellent further reading on the science of happiness I refer you to the research of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside and of Dr. Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, and in particular to their respective books, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does (Penguin, 2013) and Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006). Both works are informative, entertaining, and, refreshingly, based on empirical data as opposed to hunches.

© Davide D'Alessandro

Author Davide D'Alessandro [Photo: Kimberley Burton]

Davide D’Alessandro is a proud dual citizen of Italy and Canada. A clinical psychologist by trade, he holds a Ph.D. from McGill University, has published scholarly peer-reviewed articles, and maintains an independent psychology practice with the goal of using the lessons of science to help clients live more satisfying lives. When not employing psychology in his office, he does so in Italy, observing the habits of his fellow Italians and joining them in the enjoyment of little things to boost their moods and his alike. He generally considers himself happy, despite not owning a car and watching television on a smallish screen. Just don’t ask him to give up his sacred caffè. He lives in Montreal.

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