As humans, we’re always chasing rainbows. We want something—be it different weather, a better job, or a bigger house—but shortly after getting it, we want something different. We adapt to our circumstances, they become the “new normal,” and we want more.
This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation.” It’s a term coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in the 1970s to explain our tendency as human beings to chase happiness, only to return back to our original emotional baseline after getting what we want. We run on a hedonic treadmill, and get nowhere, despite exerting massive effort along the way.
A belief that “bigger and better” leads to more happiness results, paradoxically, in less of it. We work really hard because we want more. We obtain more, and the shine soon wears off. So, we work harder, in pursuit of even more, and become less happy as a result. The beat goes on.
It’s clear from the science that the acquisition of bigger and better things won’t make us happier. So, what will?
It’s the Journey not the Destination
In his book Happier, Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar defines the “arrival fallacy,” which is a corollary to the concept of hedonic adaptation. He describes the arrival fallacy as: “The false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”
I’ve certainly fallen victim to the arrival fallacy, having felt at first elated, then almost immediately let down — following job promotions, raises, a new car and my first home purchase. I wanted these things so badly, but the reality of obtaining them was far different than my expectations.
In an interesting study from the 1970s, researchers studied the happiness levels of two different groups of people: lottery winners and accident victims. The surprising result of the study was that, once the initial elation of winning the lottery and shock of the accident wore off, both groups returned to their original levels of happiness. Over the long-term, these drastically different external events—one seemingly positive and the other negative—had no appreciable impact on happiness.
If winning the lottery won’t make us happier, what will? Ben-Shahar suggests that it’s not reaching a particular destination (metaphorically speaking) that makes us happy, but rather learning to appreciate the journey toward the destination:
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
In this sense, ambition, itself, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. If humans didn’t want for more, we’d still be living in caves, without access to basic, modern human necessities such as electricity and clean water, nor marvels of human ingenuity such as modern medicine, art, and technology.
Problems arise when we allow the unending pursuit of growth and acquisition to inhibit our pursuit of happiness. Both ambitions—happiness and growth—can coexist, but only in balance. Growth can crowd out happiness if you’re not careful.
One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities. —Richard Eckersley
I would, of course, never presume to suggest that I know what makes you, or anyone else, happy. We all have distinct visions, preferences, and desires for our lives. But years of scientific research suggests that certain things make most of us happy. In particular, happiness isn’t derived from attaining outward signals of success (bigger and better in order to “keep up with the Joneses”), but rather seeking satisfaction from new and novel experiences in pursuit of a life well lived.
10 Ways to Cultivate More Happiness
What types of experiences pay the biggest happiness dividends?
Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at the University of Amherst and the author of Science of Happiness. She’s known as “The Happiness Professor.” Sanderson explains that there are 10 ways to increase your everyday happiness, according to decades worth of scientific research:
1. Make little changes in your daily routine, such as getting more sleep, exercising, getting out into nature, and meditating.
2. Read more books. Read books to learn—research suggests that lifelong learners remain healthy and engaged, and live long lives. Read books as an escape from your everyday life, Read books—it will make you happy.
3. Find your right fit or match, both personally and professionally. If you love what you do and who you’re with, you’ll position yourself for personal happiness and professional success.
4. Be grateful. Sanderson suggests two specific activities to help foster a greater sense of gratitude. First, keep a daily gratitude journal. Second, pay a “gratitude visit” to someone from your past who’s had a significant impact on your life, and let them know how you feel.
5. Smile more—even if you don’t feel like it. Research shows that the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into a happier state.
6. Relish simple, everyday moments. Appreciating life’s small moments — such as a beautiful, sunny day, green shoots sprouting from the ground, and skipping rocks at the beach — teaches you to be more grateful for what you have, especially during moments of stress and angst.
7. Perform random acts of kindness. Do good deeds. Volunteer. Be charitable. Shop (for someone else!). Numerous studies have shown that you can help yourself by doing good for others.
8. Spend money on experiences versus things. Studies have shown that buying an object—a car, handbag, or kitchen gadget—can quickly lead to buyer’s remorse. On the other hand, investing in experiences—a concert, a camping trip, music lessons—leads to greater happiness. Experiences create “happiness residue,” and our perceptions of them often get better over time.
9. Avoid comparisons. Whatever you may think of someone else’s life, particularly as viewed through the phony, filtered lens of social media, it’s almost certainly messier than you imagine. It’s easier to embrace, and learn to love, your own imperfections, if you don’t conjure up myths about how perfect everyone else’s lives seem.
10. Build and maintain close relationships. According to Sanderson, having a small number of tight, meaningful relationships is one of the highest predictor of happiness.
Don’t feel bad if you lose sight of some of these happiness priorities—we all do. We have to battle relentless marketing and societal expectations that suggest that the path to happiness lies elsewhere.
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think. —Daniel Kahneman
Don’t over-complicate your pursuit of happiness. As the research suggests, it’s the simple things that matter most. Make happiness a habit that’s within your control, rather than seeking it from external sources. Life is nothing but a series of moments, both big and small, and the key to happiness lies is living each one with purpose and intention.