If only [blank], I would be truly happy.
We’ve all uttered that phrase at one point during our lives. Deep down, we know we’re telling ourselves a lie. A few days or maybe weeks after the new toy or promotion, we’re right back to baseline looking for the next thing to attach to our value of true happiness.
Our return to a baseline level of happiness after a positive event has been dubbed hedonic adaptation in scientific terms. In short, attaining a higher level of material wealth or being blessed with favorable life circumstances does boost our level of happiness for the near future. However, after only a short time, we re-acclimate to a baseline level of happiness.
For example, an experiment conducted in 1978 “reported that winners of $50,000 to $1,000,000 [remember, this is 1978] in the Illinois State Lottery were no happier from less than 1 month to 18 months after the news than those who had experienced no such windfall.”
Hedonic adaptation doesn’t just apply to positive circumstances; it can apply to negative ones as well. Whereas it feels like a specific event or circumstance (like a divorce for example) might drag us down forever, research shows we can actually be pretty adept at rebounding back from misfortune.
A study on hemodialysis patients found, that on average, they’re able to rebound back to a normal level of health. However, both patients and control subjects asked to estimate their level of well-being on hemodialysis tended to over-exaggerate how large of an effect the condition would have on their lives. This indicates we’re poor estimators of our own happiness, and we project these estimations on others that are experiencing misfortune:
Sackett and Torrance (1978) demonstrated that there are other serious health conditions that do not seem to be as badly experienced by the people living with them as healthy people would expect. (Source)
To summarize – We’re poor estimators of our own happiness; fortuitous changes in our lives tend to produce less happiness than we would think; and we can rebound from misfortune better than we might guess beforehand. The question still looms:
How the hell can I be happier?
Even with hedonic adaptation in place, researchers still believe we can get happier. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, and colleagues created the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model and identified several ways to increase happiness for good.
1. Experience more positive emotions and events.
Positive emotions and events have been shown to slow hedonic adaptation, particularly when they’re achieved in the right set of circumstances. Here are three follow-up tips from researchers:
Focus on performing acts of kindness:
Philanthropic acts have been shown to activate brain areas that are associated with pleasure and euphoria.
Nurture relationships you already have.
…the dynamic nature of social relationships may provide individuals unique opportunities to multiply positive events and positive emotions in their lives.
Pursue intrinsic, self-determined goals (also a requirement for achieving a flow state)
Intrinsic goals ensures that we enjoy the process, not just the final outcome.
2. Contain your aspirations.
…higher aspirations speed up adaptation because as they increase, people need more positive events and emotions just to maintain their original level of happiness.
If aspirations are too high, happiness can become a never-ending pursuit. No amount of positive events or emotions will be enough to match your aspired level of happiness. Intrinsic goals come into play again here.
If individuals enjoy the pursuit of the goal, rather than just its attainment, they will be less focused on the end product of “increased happiness”
3. Experience variety.
“Variety is the spice of life,” or so the saying goes. We’ve seen how variety can actually increase your life span (or at least, how you experience your life). It also plays a crucial role in your happiness:
If a person decides to express gratitude more frequently, but ends up writing gratitude letters to the same person every week, he will obtain less and less of a boost in happiness with each letter.
How exactly do you experience variety while also simultaneously sticking to some semblance of a routine? Lyubomirsky offers a few options:
- Have several activities going at once. It takes longer to become bored when you’re focusing on a variety of activities.
- Vary how you accomplish the same activity. For example, while increasing fitness is the overall goal, you can mix-up the way it’s accomplished by taking different classes and choosing difference exercises.
- Alternate activities. On the topic of happiness, this could mean practicing gratitude for a few weeks and then switching to acts of kindness. By constantly switching back and forth, your mind has less of a chance to adapt to one or the other.
One important takeaway, the focus on variety should be based on experiences, not material items. Buying a different shirt every week doesn’t lead to the same benefits. The variety experienced with physical objects normally entails interacting with that object versus meeting someone new or learning a new skill. The increased variety of experiences leads to an increase in happiness.
4. Practice appreciation.
Appreciating a life change, such as beginning a new positive activity or set of activities, slows down adaptation, allowing people to sustain the boost in happiness from that change.
It’s impossible to appreciate aspects of your life if you don’t take the time to acknowledge they’re there. Taking a moment out of your day to take stock of the amazing elements in your life can greatly boost your level of happiness. If you don’t know where to start, grab a journal and make a note of 1-3 things you’re thankful for each day.
Interested in more? Sonja appeared on The Greater Good podcast back in February of 2013. It’s worth a listen.
Photo credit: Banksy