Kostadin Kushlev ’08 (continued)

Photo by Casey Templeton

Psychology researcher, University of Virginia

Kosta was born just prior to the end of communism in a small town in the southern mountains of Bulgaria. He recalls a hardscrabble childhood in which bananas were an extravagance and video games were beyond a young boy’s reach, if not his imagination. Yet he was happy. “We never thought of ourselves as deprived,” he says.

Today he studies happiness—more specifically, how factors like technology, money, and parenthood can influence personal well-being. (See his article about email on page 48.) He has authored or coauthored several scholarly articles on the subject and tweets using the Twitter handle “@HappyScholar.” 

Thesis: The More You Want, the Less You Get: The Effect of Maximizing, Number of Choices, and Mindfulness on Purchasing Decisions in Americans and Bulgarians. Adviser: Prof. Dan Reisberg [psychology 1986–]

What was your first impression of America? The tomatoes. Although we were poor in Bulgaria, we had some very good tomatoes, sweet and juicy. I was surprised that the tomatoes in Reed’s cafeteria were completely bland, with no flavor at all.

Was it a difficult transition? I experienced two culture shocks. First was just being in a new country. And then being in this bizarre place where people would go around chasing owls! But I’m a pretty gregarious person, so I made friends quickly. I was known as the crazy Bulgarian in Steele.

Why did you choose to major in psychology? I have always been someone people could talk to, even in high school. I wanted to do something that would ultimately help people. At first I wanted to be a therapist, but at Reed I realized I could be a researcher. My senior thesis was a wonderful experience!

What can you tell us about  the impact of technology on happiness? Our cell phones are meant to connect, but they can also disconnect. If a person is on a phone answering email or playing games, they’re not going to have a sense of connectedness with the people physically present with them. But there are many factors involved in the question—technology can also make us happy. Prof. Reisberg would always say to us, “The answer depends on…” When you really ask “Why?” there are no simple answers.

What's a specific example? We found, for example, that people today don’t need to ask directions so much because a cell phone can tell you how to get where you are going. So technology in that instance is obviating the need to interact with friendly strangers. We found that the people who actually stopped and asked another person for directions generally felt more socially connected and, ultimately, happier.

What’s next? I hope to stay in the academic community for a while—I like the independence. But companies like Google and Microsoft have research units, so that might be interesting some day. Ultimately I want my research to have a direct impact on the design of new technologies to maximize well-being and minimize the negative effects.