The pursuit of happiness – why does it always have to be such a pursuit?
One moment of happiness that many of us can relate to is that moment when you buy your first home, or your first car.
You’re excited for all of the new potential these objects will bring you.
For the first couple of weeks and months, it works – you are as happy as you imagined.
But then something peculiar happens – the happiness fades.
Researchers call this “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill”.
The concept was classically described by the researchers Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman in a 1978 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
They reported that lottery winners experienced the expected levels of happiness and euphoria that you might expect initially, but the emotions were short-lived.
After some time had passed, all of the lottery winners resorted back to their previous level of happiness prior to their windfall of lottery cash.
The same effect also happened with sadness.
Individuals who became partially or fully paralyzed due to an accident also reported immediate drops in happiness as might be expected. Just as the lottery winners, their happiness levels soon returned to their pre-accident levels.
What Causes Hedonic Adaptation?
1.) Old things lose their novelty. You now have the better thing, so why would that old house or car still make you happy? Your happiness naturally declines as the new thing becomes a familiar object.
2.) Once we obtain an object, our standards naturally shift upwards. We want an even faster car or a bigger home. As such, our happiness of the new purchase naturally fades.
Hedonic adaptation may be advantageous to us because it underlies our motivational drive.
We have a natural instinct to create and provide increasing levels of security in the form of food, wealth, and safety to ourself and our family and friends. We generally seek the maximization of pleasure, and the minimization of pain.
Where hedonic adaptation leads us astray is when we sabotage positive relationships and sound financial and health habits in order to obtain that “next best thing”.
A Value-Driven Life
The old saying that “money can’t buy you happiness” has some truth to it.
If sudden happiness (or sadness) still reverts to our pre-existing “average”, however, then a windfall or loss of money isn’t the answer to getting us out of our funk long-term. If that’s not the answer, how do you become happy?
My favorite definition of success is “the ability to live life by your values”.
Money is just one aspect of that.
Money just makes you more of who you already were prior to your windfall or loss of it. As the accepted currency of commerce, money allows you to live your life by your values.
If you were happy (or unhappy) before coming into or out of money, chances are, you are going to remain happy (or unhappy). You are likely to live life by the same values or lack of values that you had prior to your happy or unhappy event.
If you do not have clear values of your own – you end up servicing the values of others. You can see how this leads to feelings such as a lack of appreciation, a lack of purpose, and it may drive you to superficial sources of happiness like drugs.
This is why studies in happiness psychology typically see a “U-shape” curve of happiness with increasing wealth.
With increasing wealth, happiness increases as you can pay your bills more comfortably, and live life closer to your values.
Now that you are able to pay your bills comfortably with a little left over – your life is no longer dictated by a daily pursuit of financial, physical and emotional security. Being able to direct your life beyond just basic needs of security is uplifting, but it does not make you happy. You still need something to give you purpose and drive with your new freedom. Without a commitment to a set of values, your pursuit of happiness can be unguided. As a result, you risk feelings of listlessness, boredom, and unhappiness.
You can see how one might then easily travel down a wrong path in their pursuit of happiness – even when it seems on the surface that someone has everything they could ever want or need.
How many people do you see that forgo their core values in order to obtain financial, physical, and emotional security?
So the U-shaped curve of happiness shows us that there is a point when that curve dips again – when the pursuit of money, and the demand of earning more of it, can deflect us again away from our core values.
With increasing reward, we may start pursuing money for the sake of money itself, and not, as a means of expressing our core values. Money does not have to be a root of unhappiness – a dip in happiness could mean that you’re being forced to live a life determined by new values – such as those of your customers, a business partner, your stockholders, or a new boss.
As your life changes and evolves, make sure you undergo self-reflection of your values and make sure your core desires will still be met. You have to learn how to become happy with your self. Routine self-reflection is an important health habit to consider.
Warding Off Hedonic Adaptation With Healthy Habits
So if you come into a sudden windfall or loss of money – one strategy to may be to actively revisit your core values.
What if everything was to change tomorrow? Where would you be? How would you be able to respond?
Upon reflection on your true values, you’ll find that a bigger house and bigger car, or impressing others with material possessions, do not always serve your core values – and so you know that seeking those things will keep you chasing health and happiness instead of enjoying it.
But if that bigger house, bigger car serve a value of status and power, and you use that status and power to better the lives of those around you, to host larger friend and family get-togethers in your larger home for instance – then the pursuit of a bigger house or car may be virtuous after all.
You have two choices. One, you can choose to use that positive windfall or negative loss to reinforce your values or, two, you can use that experience to reinforce someone else’s values. If you buy a house for the sake of having a bigger house – you may really serving someone else’s values.
This distinction is what makes can make happiness much easier to maintain.
It is important to accept that hedonic adaptation is a very normal and human phenomenon.
We have all been on the hedonic treadmill at some point in our lives We are wired to anticipate future pleasure. Without that anticipation of future pleasure, we would be quite the lazy and uninspired bunch.
Inherent in the anticipation of pleasure, is a seed of discontent- and that’s where our hedonic treadmill can feel more like a hamster wheel of disappointment than a ladder to joy and tranquility.
Here are the three most useful strategies to get you out of your funk, protect yourself against hedonic adaptation, and, to make happiness last longer.
1. )Invite Novelty, Variety, and Surprise
2.) Practice Gratitude and Appreciation
3.) Utilize Negative Visualization
Invite Novelty, Variety, and Surprise:
One way to keep happiness alive and well is to break some habit patterns on a more routine basis.
If you find yourself going to the same stores, restaurants, and parks – your happiness level will naturally fall as the novelty of these places wanes.
Trying new things whether for yourself, your career, or for a relationship can help keep your happiness meter high.
Now adding these things does not mean to fill your dopamine bucket with new clothes, new cars, new homes or a new girlfriend or boyfriend every week. You want to find ways to fill your oxytocin bucket instead. Remember dopamine is not a pleasure hormone, it is the anticipation-of-pleasure hormone which means that you are left unsatisfied aching for bigger, faster, more sugary, more caffeinated…you get the point.
So actively look to change up your routines.
Take a leap of faith and take on new goals or challenges in both your relationships and careers. Mix it up in the bedroom with your partner. Take a day trip. Try a new restaurant in a different part of town. Go hiking, mini-golfing, go-carting, range shooting, or even something as simple as a leisurely walk in a new part of town.
Find ways to actively break off from cruise control. You will find that there’s limitless ways to add novelty, variety and surprise.
Gratitude practice is a habit that always seemed a little bit too “fairy tale” for my taste. This year, I developed a new appreciation for the power of gratitude.
For one, daily gratitude practice keeps your focus on the present.
Too often times, we spend too much of our waking hours in the future or past. Too much attention to the future causes anxiety and worry. Too much attention to the past can cause depression and regret.
A daily practice of gratitude keeps you focused on what matters today at this moment.
Second, gratitude and appreciation strengthen your “positive-thinking” and self-awareness muscles in the brain. With practice, you will notice that your mind starts seeing opportunity where others see risk. You are able to pause before taking an action that may run counter to your deeper values.
The grateful thoughts also helps to hedge against the natural negativity of the news and media around us – and the gossip of our peers.
When we do not balance out the negativity caused by the news, media, and gossip – it naturally leads to impulsive decisions such as overeating or overspending.
A daily practice of gratitude will help you see the joy that can be found in even the most mundane moments of day-to-day life.
Utilize Negative Visualization:
Negative visualization sounds like the most ironic strategy to promote happiness – especially since I just emphasized a practice of positive gratitude.
Negative visualization is a conceptual practice developed by the Stoic philosophers out of ancient Greece.
Negative visualization involves thinking about worst-case scenarios – before they happen. Rather than seeing negative visualization as a technique that involves excessive worry about all of the negative things that can happen in your life, see it more as a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis for your life.
When you actively think about worst-case scenarios, you learn how to prepare for such circumstances. While you cannot predict and prepare for all scenarios, when you make this practice a regular part of your routine – when negative scenarios present themselves – you’re not as surprised.
As a result, you are much better able to maintain your sense of tranquility and joy through both good and bad times.
Another aspect of negative visualization is that you recognize that the people, food, things, and places around you are temporary, mortal, and perishable.
Simply put, good and bad things are bound to change sooner or later; and ultimately, all we ever have is the now, so let’s appreciate the things while we have them!
Things are always changing. This is a lesson taught by both the Buddhists and Stoics as it promotes present-time consciousness.
Because you acknowledge that you could wreck your new car tomorrow, or, that bad things can happen to friends and family close to you – you learn to value the people, places and things more genuinely in the present. You accept that every conversation, meal, or ride in that fancy car could be your last.
You’re not wishing bad things to happen, nor are you overly preoccupied with negative thoughts. It’s just a gentle acknowledgment that everything is always changing, and at different speeds.
You have little control over that speed and timing of change, and so the lesson is just to be present with people, places and things while you have them.
When you lose people or things, you are not left with feelings of regret, guilt, as well as the “If only I had done X or Y” feelings. You maximized your time with the person or thing, and so there is nothing to regret when he, she, or it is lost.
Instead, your natural mourning comes out of a place of joy and celebration for a life (or thing) well-lived – rather than from a place grief and despair.
Expanding the Art of Negative Visualization
Another sub-strategy of negative visualization is to add a sense of hardship or loss for those who may have not yet had an experience of hardship or loss in their lives.
While the lack of hardship can be seen as a privilege, it’s a recipe for unhappiness according to the Stoics.
Negative visualization can help an individual imagine and act as if a negative thing already happened. He or she might also use negative visualization to empathize with the negative experiences of others, and put themselves in their shoes.
During negative visualization, your mental thoughts may sound something like this:
- How would I react if X or Y happened to me?
- What if my parents, teacher, boss, coworker, the government couldn’t bail me out this time?
- What if I had to sleep on the streets with just a cardboard box and thin blanket for warmth?
In this way, you can “vaccinate” yourself from being devastated by negative experiences, by inviting the experience of mild discomforts. You can see how it can be a positive practice – despite your first impressions of the technique.
Negative visualization strengthens your resolve, so that when negative things happen – you are better equipped to cope, and you’re more likely to dig in and do what you need to do to pull yourself out of unhappiness.
Putting it All Together
While the Stoics can be seen as masochists by some, it’s a misunderstanding.
It was the Cynic philosophers who actively invited pain. The Stoic philosophers actually sought tranquility foremost.
Stoic philosophy is actually very similar to Zen Buddhism – which is a widely accepted and revered way of life in many cultures. The goals of Stocism are more closely aligned with tranquility, virtue, interconnectedness, and a duty to others. Since we are interconnected with all others, we should make the best of our fleeting time on Earth to be our best ,and to be of supreme value to others.
Stoics actively enjoy the fruits of life, they are just indifferent to a “need” for them – especially if the fruit of life was to risk their tranquility, virtue, and duty to serve others.
As a result, many of the ancient Stoic philosophers enjoyed significant wealth, whereas wealth largely evades most of those who make wealth and possessions a primary aim.
It wasn’t until I studied Stoicism more closely that I realized that Stoicism shares a lot of principles with Buddhism. Both philosophies emphasize practices that foster self-awareness, bring mindful attention to core values, and invite a humble acceptance of an ever-changing world.
When we subconsciously string together feelings and thoughts of unhappiness, especially through development at a young age – we can wrongly identify ourselves as an unhappy person living an unhappy life.
We naturally act to protect our identity and sense of belonging. You can see how that can lead us wrong if we self-identify with unhappiness
Putting it All Together
The strategies above systematically remind us that we are a tranquil and joyful person who just happen face temporary emotional discomforts from time to time.
Beneath the stormy clouds lies a clear mind and joyful heart.
Without actively separating the “self” from our constantly changing emotions, we wrongfully identify with those emotions as “me”.
We naturally protect our sense of identity – and as such if we identify ourselves as unhappy. As I shared above, we find ways to support our unhappiness.
We feel that we don’t deserve a healthy relationship – so we settle for less optimal ones.
We become tethered to our unhappiness – and wrongly seek material possessions, loveless sex, and abusive personal and career relationships.
The best thing about these alternative strategies is that they are things you have almost 100% control over. If you don’t have control over something, why worry about it?
You can choose your goals. You can choose your values. You can choose to see both the good and bad of the world for what it is – without identifying with them as permanent states.
As a result, you can break off from the cruise control. You can choose to stop pursuing happiness, and enjoy the happiness of pursuit instead.