Have you ever noticed that even though some people who seem to have everything one could hope for, don’t seem happy? There’s an interesting theory that tries to explain why. It is called “hedonic adaptation“, also refered to as “the hedonic treadmill“.
The hedonic treadmill describes the tendency of people to return to their usual level of happiness after major events in their lives (both positive and negative)
Examples of Hedonic Adaptation
- People who win the lottery tend to return to their normal levels of happiness after the excitement and novelty of the big pile of cash has worn off.
- Someone who is unhappy in their job, finds a great new job opportunity and initially is very happy and upbeat about it, but after a year or so, the excitement of the new job wore off and they’re back to their old, unhappy selves.
- When someone is in a major accident and loses the use of their legs, tend to be very unhappy at first, but after a while they adapt to their new life and their level of happiness returns to its previous, pre-accident, levels.
- Visiting a very nice restaurant for the first time seems very exciting and pleasurable, but after the tenth visit, the restaurant’s food, atmosphere and service seems to become ordinary and we don’t get that same initial level of satisfaction from it anymore.
Stuff, stuff and more stuff!
So why bring up Hedonic Adaptation on a personal finance blog?
Many people spend a lot of money and resources on acquiring stuff in the search for that little “happiness-hit“.
The happiness unfortunately wears off quickly, thanks to Hedonic Adaptation, and out you go and spend more money on the next thing in search of another hit. And another. And another.
Welcome to the Hedonic Treadmill! Not only will it not bring you any lasting happiness, it will ruin your finances and postpone your retirement!
Ways to overcome the hedonic treadmill
To avoid this, University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests keeping things novel:
“Novelty, variety and surprise can prevent or slow down adaptation. So, with relationships, let’s say you get married and you get a happiness boost. Studies show that it takes about two years for people’s happiness levels to go back to what they were before the wedding. That doesn’t mean that you’re not happy with your marriage, but we get used to it to some extent. So we want to introduce some variety and novelty and surprise to the marriage in a positive way. Don’t watch Netflix every Friday night; mix it up. Do different things with your partner. The kind of things that can lead to more surprises, again in a positive way. Same thing with a job. Open yourself up to new opportunities, challenges, taking risks, learning new things, and meeting new people.”
Here are some more ideas to help you avoid or overcome Hedonic Adaptation:
Focus on the now
Spend more of your energy focusing on the present moment. We spend too much time reminiscing about the past, or worrying about the future. Find happiness and gratitude in the now, the only moment that ever really exists! If you can find happiness in the now, you won’t need to go and look for it in an expensive store.
Make it a habit to meditate every day, even if just for a few minutes at a time. Meditation is renowned for reducing stress, improving concentration, slowing aging, encouraging a healthy lifestyle and increasing self-awareness. It also helps in avoiding retail-therapy, so it’s a great money-tip!
Rotate your pleasures
Just as a fresh set of sheets feel more wonderful than your week-old sheets, a rotation of pleasures is more enjoyable than the same ones for days in a row. This may be different if you enjoy the ritual of certain activities, but it’s generally true. Keep an eye on how much you enjoy various pleasures and when you become slightly bored with them you’ll know what to do.
Find time for others
It’s too easy to become so busy in your daily life that you don’t make enough time for other people. Spending time with different friends or family on a regular basis changes things up a lot and can keep your life fresh (like a new set of bed sheets!) in such a way that you don’t feel the need to spend money on some new gadget to give you another happiness-hit.
Help other people
By investing some of your time and energy into helping other people has a huge positive effect on one’s own sense of happiness and fulfillment. And apart from a little bit of your time, it doesn’t need to cost you anything. So go out and help someone today and score a free happiness-hit!
But what about the happiness set point?
The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life, and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives.
Whenever we get a happiness-hit, or experience some setback in life, our overall happiness tends to return to our personal happiness set-point.
So, does this mean that whatever we do to increase our happiness is ultimately futile and just a waste of our time, money and energy, since the effect will just wear off? Well, yes and no. For the most part, chasing short-term happiness-boosters (like buying a new gadget or dong some other retail-therapy) won’t have a lasting benefit (and is thus a waste of money and should be avoided).
But, it is possible to raise one’s hapiness set-point, and the good news is that it won’t cost you anything (a big hooray from the financial independence crowd!) According to some studies the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run.
So, the next time you’re feeling a little down, want to grab your wallet and hit the stores for some “uplifting” retail-therapy, rather save your hard-earned dough and find someone in need of a good deed!
“If one lights a fire for others,” wrote Nichiren Daishonin, “one will brighten one’s own way.”
There you have it. Get off the Hedonic Treadmill, make other people’s lives happier and in the process make your own life better. And save money in the process!