What we’re really searching for is happiness.
Whether we’re looking for a new job, a new house, or new shoes, it’s happiness we’re after. Sometimes these things do meet our basic human needs. But once our basic needs are met, we continue to search for more and more in a perpetual pursuit of happiness.
We go after ideas, goals and objects we think will bring us joy. But once we get them, our initial happiness subsides and we move on to want something better, bigger, or more our style.
This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation*. It’s real. And it happens when we get used to changes in our lives (positive or negative) and adapt to them in our (mostly unconscious) attempt to get back to a stable emotional level. This process can be good or bad, depending on how it plays out.
For example, one study showed lottery winners experienced a high level of happiness right after their windfall, but fell back to a stable level of happiness (comparable to those who had not won the lottery) less than two years later.
An example you might relate to is the happiness experienced when you buy a new car. You’re ecstatic about that new car. Yet 6 months later that new car no longer gives the zap of dopamine you experienced when you bought it. A year or two later, you’d really like a shot of that happiness again, so you shop for the next car. Even though you know in the back of your mind you don’t need the car, you find some way to rationalize it.**
How to increase happiness
Maybe we can’t completely cure our tendency for hedonic adaptation, but it certainly would be helpful to keep it in check and still keep our happiness levels elevated. According to a study referenced by Psychology Today, there actually are some effective ways to guard against it.
The solution? Variety and appreciation.
Let’s say you tried that new sandwich at the deli a week ago and it was fabulous – maybe the best sandwich you’ve ever had in your life. So you order that same sandwich each day after that. After a week, you aren’t experiencing even remotely the same amount of pleasure that you had the day you first bit into that delectable creation.
The law of diminishing returns gets us every time. The more you eat the sandwich, the less pleasure you get each time you eat it. And, if you keep eating it every day, eventually you’ll be sick of that sandwich you once loved so dearly (Can you tell I’ve recently had the pleasure of eating a great sandwich?)
The key to making variety work for you is to change things up before you tire of whatever it is you’re enjoying so much right now.
This doesn’t mean you should go out and buy a new car because you anticipate getting bored with it. Make some changes with it – clean the car, put a new air freshener in it, shine up the tires, and wax it.
Or change your mindset about the car. Calculate how much it’s saving you over buying a new car. How much money will you save by keeping it? What could you use the money for? Maybe keeping this car could change your life! If you don’t upgrade, maybe you could work toward debt freedom, take that Caribbean vacation you’ve dreamed of or put it toward an earlier retirement!
The best way to gain a new appreciation for something you already have is to live without it. We take what we already have for granted, whether it’s our material possessions, health, money or relationships.
Mr. Money Mustache has a great method for increasing appreciation that he calls voluntary discomfort, or voluntary hardship. Sounds distressing. And I suppose it can be, depending on what it is or how you look at it. But, in my opinion, it’s the perfect antidote for our tendency toward hedonic adaptation.
I can’t say it any better than he does:
As a contemporary Stoic, you might make a point of seeing how long you can leave the air conditioning off on a summer day, or try hiking in bare feet instead of shoes occasionally to feel the land and force your feet to adapt to tougher conditions than a moisture-wicking merino wool hiking sock. It sounds absurd by modern standards, until you realize that by doing this, you are actually broadening your comfort zone, even while you eliminate your fear of discomfort. Thanks to the practice above, you are now able to enjoy yourself in a much broader range of temperatures, and appreciate the comfort of shoes when you do have them. Meanwhile, a person with the extreme opposite philosophy might become irritated if he ever has to travel in less than a first-class airplane seat or stay in less than a five star hotel or drink sub-$500-per-bottle wine. By experimenting with voluntary discomfort, we learn to appreciate far more of our life, and can be content with a much simpler and more wholesome one.” – Mr. Money Mustache
One of my favorite ways to create voluntary discomfort (with my finances) is by having no spend weekends and no spend months. What better way to re-evaluate “needs” then to spend as little money as possible? It helps me break up the routine, recognize where I’ve been unconsciously spending time and money, and develop an appreciation for what I already have.
It may not sound like a whole lot of fun to intentionally create discomfort, but it can go a long ways toward increasing your appreciation of, and gratitude for, what you already have. There’s no better (or cheaper) way to increase happiness, in my opinion.
How do you find and keep happiness? Do you use variety? In what ways do you create voluntary discomfort in your life?
*Thanks to Mr. Crazy Kicks for the awesome explanation hedonic adaptation!
**I know this one well. Alan and I used to buy a new (or at least new to us) car/truck every year or two. We always had a “rational” reason for it too. Once we realized the freedom we could have by not perpetuating this cycle of debt, we stopped it in it’s tracks.