Generally when we think about what will make us happy, we think of situational things.
If we could get that promotion, lose a few pounds, make more money, or have whiter teeth, then we’d be happy.
As we learned last week, though, these only account for 10% of our happiness.
It’s even more dire than that, however. Any improvements in our happiness within this 10% are only temporary, thanks to hedonic adaptation.
More, More, More
We always want more.
We set a goal that we think will make us happy. We hit it. We celebrate. And then we set the next goal.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If we are always striving for more and are never happy with what we have, then we are more likely to survive.
More food stored up helps us survive famine. More water helps us survive drought. Bigger and better weapons help us survive encounters with predators.
We’re built for survival.
The flip side of this is that we are not built for happiness.
This doesn’t just apply to material goods, either. We get used to whatever situation we are in.
This makes sense too. We want to be able to keep functioning in extreme temperatures. We don’t want to rest on our laurels when we’re comfortable.
We don’t want our ancestors to find a nice comfortable cave, get happy, and stop striving for a safer home. That’s how you get eaten by a saber tooth tiger.
Again, we’re built for survival rather than happiness.
The Modern World
These adaptations were great for our ancestors. They’re part of why we exist now. But they have negative implications for modern life.
Our instincts are to strive for more, more, more. We want another promotion, more money, and more stuff. We want a bigger house with newer appliances and cool technology. We think that once we get a little bit more, then we’ll be happy.
And we will be!
Briefly. Then our ancient instincts kick in and make us strive for more again.
Winning the Lottery
Like our ancestors, we adapt to new situations very quickly.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the famous study examining happiness levels of people after they won the lottery.
After winning the lottery, people’s happiness goes up.
This makes sense. It’s exciting. They’ve got a whole bunch of new money to buy new things. They can improve their situation and their surroundings.
Quickly, though, they get used to this new state of being. Their happiness drops back down to where it was before they won. The study found that they “took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events” than others did.
They found a bunch of new sources of happiness, but they also stopped appreciating the things that used to make them happy. It ends up being a wash.
If you’re unhappy, winning the lottery won’t change that.
Outsmart Your Instincts
Many of us are now in a place where survival is a whole lot easier.
We no longer need to hoard food, water, stuff, or even money to survive. This means that we no longer need to put so much emphasis on survival at the expense of happiness.
If we want to be happy, then, we need to outsmart our instincts.
This starts with recognizing our powers of adaptation. We need to remember that while our instincts will tell us that more will make us happy, we know that this is not true.
We need to recognize the wisdom that “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” There is a reason that every culture across history has some version of this idea.
It isn’t easy to keep this in mind, though. It is a tough idea to accept!
It feels wrong.
We have strong desires. Satiating those desires feels like it should make us happy.
That short term burst of happiness gives us a hit and keeps us striving for more. But we end up needing higher and higher doses to get that same happiness boost.
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Once we recognize this, we can devote our time and attention to more effective means of improving happiness. This is what we’ll be spending the rest of the month working on, so stay tuned.