We've all bought a new bag, or a new car, or a new shiny item that we thought would make us happy. So why does that "new object" shine never last? This week, I'm going to talk about hedonic adaptation, why it might be undermining your achievements, and what you can do about it.
I confess, I am a person who likes shiny objects. Luckily they don't need to be expensive shiny object for me to love them, but for some people their obsession to get the next "must-have" item has its roots in the idea that money and objects can buy you happiness. Unfortunately, both research and personal experience tells people that this isn't true.
What is hedonic adaptation?
Hedonic adaptation starts with the idea that we all have a relatively stable "baseline" of happiness (some people call this our happiness set point). When we do something to increase our happiness - change of job, move house, get married, buy chocolate - this only works temporarily, and we tend to go back to our set point over time. This probably isn't surprising to many people, as we've all experienced it in one way or another. What might be surprising to you is that there is research into this topic, and it shows exactly what you would expect it to:
So the take-home message of that study is, it doesn't really matter what happens (within reason), we tend to be able to adjust to it and return to baseline. It makes a lot of sense, when you think about it from an evolutionary perspective. We need to be able to react to new stimuli and find ways to improve our situation - if things like thirst and hunger were static, we'd never know when we truly needed food and water. If we only had one friend to satisfy our social needs, and that person died, we'd probably also have perished. But evolution couldn't account for the society we now find ourselves in.
We're constantly comparing ourselves to those around us, and constantly looking for the next thing that will make us happy. And yet, it also seems as a society we've never been less happy. The constant thrum of our brains seeking out more, better, faster - it's exhausting, and it doesn't work.
Say you start your career and you look around you at all your colleagues, and your friends and family. You decide to focus on getting a pay rise, so that you can afford to rent a (more expensive) flat closer to work. So you work hard, and get the pay rise, and your new flat. But after a while, you realise that you're no happier - in fact, you decide that what you'd really like is a new car, and you need another pay rise for that. So you work hard, and get the pay rise, and...you guessed it, after a few months you're thinking that you need even more money, to get some fancy new clothes. This is a game that you cannot win. Don't get me wrong, if you're struggling financially then an increase in money will absolutely help - but research shows that after about $75,000 (which is still a LOT of money!) that happiness doesn't increase. After a certain point, more simply isn't better.
So what can you do?
Generally speaking, there are a couple of things you can do to try to step off the "hedonic treadmill" and make happiness last a bit longer.
Variety in experiences - you've heard the phrase "variety is the spice of life" - well, turns out it's true! When the experiences we have are varied, or surprising, or things that we didn't necessarily expect, it is very hard to "adapt" to them. This is the opposite of hedonic adaptation in a nutshell - after the third drive to work in the lovely new car it starts to lose its sheen, but if you drive a different way, or listen to a different radio station, or give a work colleague a lift, it becomes new and unique, and therefore potentially more exciting. Generally mixing it up in most situation can lead to new experiences that you wouldn't have had otherwise, and can prolong the joy you get out of a new purchase.
Focus on gratitude and appreciating what you have - on the other hand, you don't even need to buy shiny new things to get an increase in happiness. Appreciating the things you already have, however small, can help to make you feel a bit happier. Whether that's really savouring the cup of tea that you have on a morning, wearing your favourite clothes to work, or re-reading a book that you really enjoyed a few years ago (for me, it has to be a few years or I remember the plot, which isn't hugely happiness-inducing!). Every small thing you do throughout the day is an opportunity to focus on the pleasure you gain, which is part of the basis of practices such as mindfulness.
Get feedback from other people - humans are great at getting "locked in" to patterns of behaviour that stop us from trying new experiences. When you're getting ready to go to the same restaurant on a Friday night that you always go to, why not ask a friend for a new recommendation? Find out what kind of things your work colleagues do on weekends and then do something similar. Get inspiration for your evening meal from Twitter. Life does get a little monotonous at times, and finding out what other people do to make life a little bit more interesting can be really inspiring - and you might even find someone willing to go with you, to make doing something new a bit less scary.
Does this post resonate with you? Got any more ideas to get off the hedonic treadmill? Let me know in the comments!
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects