Why You Aren’t Getting Any Happier

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.

Join the Conversation

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.

8 thoughts on “Why You Aren’t Getting Any Happier”

  1. A great topic Matt. I’ve found my happiness has a lot to do with contentment. Being satisfied with the things I have already and not always chasing something new. Also, a big factor for me is not allowing things outside of my control bother me. Easier said than done sometimes, but has helped me achieve a better overall level of happiness.
    Brian recently posted…Financially Parenting Strong-Willed TeensMy Profile

    1. Your comment is essentially the Stoic approach to happiness. Let go of things that are outside of your control, and appreciate what you have rather than always needing more. Sounds like you’re doing well on this front. Thanks, Brian!
      Matt recently posted…Looking on the Bright SideMy Profile

  2. What do you think about the idea that chasing those strong desires leads to happiness?

    When I was training for my first marathon, the idea of building closer and closer to my goal made me happy. Sure, I ran the race and adapted to the new normal but I was happy in the meantime. Then I set my sights on something new and enjoyed chasing that desire. I find that I’m happiest when I’m on track to accomplish a difficult goal. These days it’s building a blog and an associated business. Maybe I’ll adapt to it too once I’m successful. Even so, I’m enjoying the journey.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…I Love Credit Cards and So Should YouMy Profile

    1. I’m super late in responding to this comment, but I posted an article after this one (http://www.optimizeyourlife.co/more-reasons-work-makes-us-happy/) about how reaching our goals doesn’t give us lasting happiness, but striving for them does. Just keep setting goals, working towards them, and setting new ones once you reach them. As long as you recognize that happiness comes from the journey and not the destination, you’re golden. Thanks, Jason!
      Matt recently posted…Looking on the Bright SideMy Profile

    1. I hadn’t heard of it before this comment. I just looked it up and I have read books on the subject by all of the guest lecturers, though! I’ll have to check it out when I get some time and see if there’s anything new I can pick up. Thanks for the heads up!
      Matt recently posted…Looking on the Bright SideMy Profile

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