Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

The Key to Happiness is Not-Adapting to Positive Changes

02 February 2014 by Jim

Have you ever lost someone dear to you? If you have, you know how difficult such a time can be. But after the period of grieving, (healthy) humans move on. That’s a very positive trait in our psychology. How else could we live for 80 years (at least some of us) and not go crazy because we see so many of our friends and family members leave us? We adapt to our circumstances to live on. Our happiness takes a dip when something very bad happens in our lives, and then it slowly creeps upwards until it is at a ‘normal’ level again. This is called ‘hedonic adaption’.

Unfortunately, it also works in the opposite direction. If something very positive happens to you, like getting that present from Santa you so wished for, winning the lottery, getting your dream job or buying a wonderful home, you feel ecstatic for some brief period of time, your happiness shoots through the roof, and then, it steadily reverts back to the normal level again, and after 20 years of living in your beautiful home, you’re pretty much indifferent to it. You don’t care that much anymore. It’s just ‘normal’. You got used to it and it’s not special anymore. You adapted to your new circumstances.

This is a big problem for many people, and they do not even know it.

Why are there still people in developed countries committing suicide? Since they live in a world where they do not die of starvation, get free medical care (in Europe, at least) no matter whether they work or not, they should always feel like they can dig their way out of whatever bad situation they got themselves in.

But they don’t.

Why? Because they adapted to their circumstances, and they do not feel special or privileged just because they live in a developed country. It’s just nothing special to them, so it doesn’t protect them from depression or other bad emotions.

According to one very interesting study of 2010, which you can read here, “what people pay attention to is their experience; it is their life”. Even if you’re a millionaire (which many people imagine would make them insanely happy forever) you will feel bad when your dog throws up on the floor, because compared to the previous state you got used to (a clean kitchen), the dirty kitchen floor now is a worse state. And you will most certainly not think to yourself “I’m a millionaire, so I should be happy even if my kitchen floor is now dirty.”

The grand scheme of things does not matter to humans. They are a bit short-sighted in that they only see what immediately affects them.

But we don’t have to be that way.

Instead of getting used to things being the way they are, let’s ask ourselves regularly why they are this way. What positive and negative things have happened to us so far?

We’re 7 billion strong, with rapid advances in medicine, technology and science in general, ever fewer poor people in the world, ever more fun lives and more spare time, … humanity is pretty great so far. And all the little negative things, even though they are definitely serious issues and need to be dealt with, do not change the fact that our lives right now are wonderful (for the vast majority of people) compared to what a human’s life used to be over the past millennia. That’s the grand scheme of things, and we shouldn’t forget it.

We can be a whole lot happier if we try to think about how nice our lives already are, instead of always just trying to get more and more (the ‘hedonic treadmill’).

As Lyubomirski’s writes in her study, “people who continue to be aware of a positive activity change in their lives are less likely to adapt to it”. And indeed, “focusing on “comforts” (read: circumstantial changes) is joyless, because individuals eventually adapt to them. Instead, people should spend their money on joyful things, which yield continual fascination, challenge, and fulfillment, like the “pleasures” of meeting good friends or backpacking through a gorgeous landscape (cf. Van Boven, 2005)”.

This means you should focus on doing rather than having“An activity that is practiced with variety (or a life change that naturally yields variety) is more likely to remain rewarding and meaningful over time and thus less prone to hedonic adaptation.”

We should also limit our aspirations to remain happier over the long term: “by recognizing that the change producing a person’s inflow of positive or negative experiences may never have come to pass and that its future is uncertain, the person keeps the change “fresh” in her mind. As long as those experiences remain feeling “new,” aspirations will be maintained; the moment they get “old,” one starts getting used to them and/or taking them for granted and aspirations rise. […] Finally, an individual can take steps to reduce his or her aspirations regarding a positive change and to keep them low after a negative change (see D in both figures). In Aristotle’s words, “Bring your desires down to your present means. Increase them only when your increased means permit.” This may be the most challenging way to thwart adaptation, necessitating the full arsenal of psychological tools at the individual’s disposal, including most of the recommendations described above. For example, a person who has just obtained a hefty raise might remind himself of what life was like before (Liberman, Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Ross, in press) and limit his spending habits to match earlier pat- terns; and a person who has recently been fur- loughed might resign herself to the loss of income and instead focus on productive ways to use her new-found extra time.

We must not forget to express gratitude for the things we have already achieved: “Expressing gratitude involves noticing and reappreciating the good things in one’s life, both concrete and abstract – a comfortable house, a kind friend, strong arms, a thrilling European vaca- tion, the exquisiteness of a Caravaggio painting – and re-evaluating them as gifts or “blessings.” The concomitants and consequences of grateful think- ing appear to include bolstered resources for coping with adversity, enhanced self-worth, reduced mate- rialism, fortified social bonds, and the countervail- ing of negative feelings like envy, bitterness, avarice, and irritation (Emmons, 2007). […] A number of experiments from my laboratory, as well as those of others, have demonstrated that the regular practices of gratitude, optimism, and savoring, performed over the course of anywhere from 1 to 12 consecutive weeks, bring about significant increases in well-being.”

 

 

 

 

 

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