The “Secret” to Happiness


top-secret
Have you ever received a raise?

Let’s say you get a $1200 raise. Not bad, right? Well if you’re paid twice a month that’s around $50 per cheque before deductions; so let’s say it’s an extra $30 per pay period.

It’s an increase, but it’s not really that much. It’s not like you’ll be buying a new car or taking that vacation you wanted with an additional $30 every few weeks.

Now let’s change this up a bit and imagine you received a 10k raise. That would probably turn into around a $250-$300 increase per pay period, which is fairly significant. When that happens, you definitely notice it.

At first.

Here’s the thing. After a few months (and at most a year) you won’t even notice the increase; no matter how big the increase is.

 

This happens in all aspects of life. We get that new car we’ve been wanting and there are all these new features we didn’t have before. We get that new house, and it has more space or more rooms.

The new stuff is pretty cool, and pretty great.

But over a fairly short period of time, it stops being new. We become used to it. And it becomes our new “normal”.

Once something has become our new norm, we start to notice flaws we didn’t see at first (or flaws that didn’t seem important).  And more importantly, we stop appreciating the positives these new things have provided.

This is part of the human condition. We are hard-wired to take the positive things in our life for granted.

 

Hedonic Adaptation

I’ve been writing about happiness being negatively impacted by taking things for granted for a long time now, but it’s only recently that I found out there is a name for it. This phenomenon is known as Hedonic Adaptation (thanks Matt for pointing me to this).

Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Most of my writing is about relationships, and the implications of this for relationships are HUGE. I’ve often challenged the concept of soul mates, or “the one”. It’s a terrible concept that removes any personal accountability for building and maintaining healthy working relationships. After all, when things get tough why would you want to work on things? And why would you look at your own role in the breakdown of a relationship? It’s easier just to tell ourselves that this other person wasn’t the right one for us.

Hedonic adaptation tells us it doesn’t matter how amazing the person we find is. They can be “a perfect match” for us, and it STILL won’t matter. Because no matter how great they are, after a while that greatness will simply be the norm.

When you see it day after day, year after year is ceases to have any impacts on us. It will just be who they are, and we will stop seeing and appreciating the good.

Thing is, everyone has at least some flaws. And when we stop seeing and appreciating the good those flaws start to stand out.

CalvinComplain

Making Comparisons

This becomes an even bigger issue when it’s coupled this with another problem with human nature – comparison.

As people, we have an inability to judge something based on its own merits. Instead, we judge the value of something by comparing it to a similar item.

And when comparing, we almost always compare the flaws of the thing we are comparing to those characteristics in something else. But when we do this, due to hedonic adaptation we aren’t also comparing the positives, because we no longer see them.

 

I’ve got a pretty good career, and a pretty good job. It’s not what I initially wanted, but it provides a reasonably good life for my family without requiring long hours or high levels of stress.

Sometimes though I compare myself to others, to people I’ve known through school or through work. I see people I’ve known over the years that seem to have greater levels of career success then me, and in many cases they are people who aren’t any better than me.

In those moments I often feel like a failure, and question what I’ve done wrong.

In a vacuum, I have a lot to be grateful for. It’s only through comparison that I start to feel like things are lacking, or feel like a failure.

These moments usually pass quickly, because am aware that I am doing this, and I realize I am making selective comparisons.

First, there are different measurements of success. And looking selectively at someone’s title or salary doesn’t take into account all the other factors that I have no visibility on.

Secondly, in those moments I am picking and choosing WHO I compare myself to. There are a lot of people out there who I have known that haven’t had the same level of success I have had. During my personal self-pity parties I conveniently exclude those people from my comparisons, and only look at those people I perceive as doing better than me.

Falling Out of Love

I recently asked someone about the concept of falling out of love with your partner, and what was described to me was a perfect example of these concepts.

We meet someone, and there’s a pretty good chance there are good qualities that draw us to them. Over time though, things break down and we are left feeling tired, frustrated and not feeling valued. These items on their own cause the relationship to break down, and resentment to start to grow.

When the relationship has hit this stage, hedonic adaptation is one of the big culprits. Chances are, the good qualities of the other person haven’t really gone away. They are still there, but we no longer see them. Instead all we see is the flaws, and the problems. And when those flaws are no longer being offset by good (because we no longer see the good), it’s easy to question is it still worth it?

I don’t think that alone is usually the killer though. The REAL killer is once we add comparison.

In the description of falling out of love, a comment was made that when the relationship has hit a bad spot you start to think something like “maybe I should have married my college sweetheart instead”. Sometimes the comparison is to an old relationship. Sometimes you hear positive stories about things other people’s partners are doing (oh look, they just went on a trip, or had a romantic night out) and that creates a perception that other people’s partners are better than your own. Or sometimes you meet someone that “seems to have more in common with you” and start focusing your energy there (while reducing the effort in your relationship) because it makes you feel more alive.

None of these are positive, productive, or realistic (especially the last one). In all cases, you are comparing the issues and flaws of your current partner to strengths of someone else, while simultaneously ignoring the good parts of your partner that you have taken for granted and not seeing the flaws of the other person.

They are broken comparisons, rigged to make our partners look even worse than they really are.

What This Means for Happiness

So what does all this mean, and what does it have to do with happiness? Well, hopefully that’s fairly clear.

There’s no real surefire way to “be happy”, and we shouldn’t want that anyhow. I have always seen happiness as a journey, and not a destination. To me it’s not something we can achieve.  Rather, it’s a byproduct of the way we live and our outlook on life. And on any journey there will good and bad, happiness and sadness. Joy and pain.

But although we can’t make ourselves happy, human nature will cause us to do things that will minimize our potential happiness.
Hedonic adaptation tells us that over time the good in our life becomes our norm, and when that happens we stop seeing the good and we take it for granted.

Being aware of this phenomenon allows us to guard against it. And to guard against it we need to try to approach life with more of a sense of appreciation. We should regularly take stock of the good in our life, and the good qualities of our partner. When we do this, the flaws (which will always be there) often don’t seem as bad.

The second thing we can guard against is making comparisons. Stop comparing our partners to someone else (past relationships and potential partners) and stop comparing ourselves to other people.

The way we make comparisons is broken. We tend to only make comparisons when we see flaws in the thing we are comparing (ourselves or our partners), and we tend to compare those flaws (while overlooking the good) to an imaginary state that is usually only focused on the good in the other thing.

Hedonic adaptation and comparison can be fatal to us appreciating what we have in the here and now, and understanding them allows us to reduce their effects, maximizing our happiness. So the secret to happiness isn’t so much about searching for happiness. Instead it’s about not losing the happiness we already have.

I found this nicely stated on psychologytoday.com:

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have. In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned. The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

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22 thoughts on “The “Secret” to Happiness

  1. I’ve been thinking about this intently.. When we were looking at moving to AK it was BEAUTIFUL!! Stunning.. the air the rain.. and now that we’ve been here a year.. I barely see the place as stunning anymore.. I found that sad.
    I called it desensitization and would discuss this to my friends.

    Lately I’ve been on a negative spin with Charles.. and he’s been quite great lately.. but I don’t really appreciate it in the moment. You know? I don’t fully enjoy not having a douche for a husband.
    I have one that listens intently.. the seems to adore me..
    He claims it’s been almost 2 years since the affair ended. Yet I call BS to that mental skillset because after affair people say the dumbest things.. and how I was able to listen to those things and not be on the program SNAPPED is due to God’s grace and protection.

    Anyways good to know about this Hedonic Adaptation because I agree with it. I too do it and it’s a mindset that comes easier than gratefulness for me. Which I have no intention of wanting to build.

    Am I truly grateful for the husband I have now? Or will the wonderful things he does now always fall in the shadows of what was because of the sad Hedonic Adaptation? I think I struggle with the gray of loving a cheater which has nothing to do with Charles.. it has so much to do with me.

    Great post something we all should be aware of 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see this on display all the time. I used to see it in the workplace, when I worked at a really great company and I saw lots of people who just complained about the flaws without appreciating the good.

      But it really came home to me a few years ago when a buddy of mine who was in social work quit his job to become a whitewater rafting instructor. He loved the water, and he wanted more excitement, and a chance to get away from “the grind” of an office job.

      He loved his new job, for a while. But eventually he got tired of it and he’s now back as a social worker. When talking about it he told me that “it doesn’t matter what you are doing, after a while everything is just a job”. Now he has a new mindset of appreciation, and it makes a world of difference for his happiness.

      I think this is the reason behind “the grass is greener” syndrome, where people always imagine that some fantasy scenario somewhere else will be better than their own.

      I think it’s a natural mindset for people, but also a very negative one.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 2 people

      • So true it’s such a natural mindset but not a good one 🙂
        Great post and great story about your friend. I see funny posts about how social work ages a person. I wonder if Whitewater rafting does the same? 🙂 Happy Monday

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember when my buddy left to become a white water rafting instructor. We had gone for lunch, and it seemed like things were good with his job/life/etc. Then a few months later I got an email from him saying he had quit his job and was moving away to be a white water rafting instructor.

        I knew social work had a high burnout rate, but even still a part of me thought it was a joke.

        Nope, he was gone for a few years and I didn’t talk to him at all.

        Then he just came back home one day. We went out, and I was a bit reluctant to ask what happened. But we got talking, and when he made the comment about “anything becoming just a job after a while”, it really stuck with me.

        Repetion, routine. These things suck the enjoyment out of life – IF we let them.

        My buddy showed me that chasing the next big thing NEVER works. The only thing that works is changing your own mindset about the things you do.

        He’s back in social work, and when we talked about how he can handle it now it’s all about his mental approach. The work isn’t really all that different, but how he approaches it is.

        In relationships I see/hear of people walking away from their marriages out of frustration with the things that are broken.

        Sometimes the next relationship is better, sometimes the cycle repeats. I’ve asked around for some of the people who have found it “better” the next time around, and often the main difference is their mental approach.

        In that case, I think there has to be a way to change that approach while in the current marriage, to make it more enjoyable.

        Not saying all marriages can or should be saved. But often I feel people throw away something that is largely good because they have lost sight of the good, and are only seeing the bad.

        Thanks for the comment.

        Like

      • Just a quick thought here:
        Dont you think having that attitude in excess can lead to your partner taking you for granted? I mean if we learn to look at the positives in every situation and get habituated to being more accomodating, we might lose our self worth in the process and wouldn’t know where to draw the line, don’t you think?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I can see what you are saying. And it’s kind of ironic, because I think active appreciation is actually the best way to *prevent* people from taking the things around them for granted.

        To be clear though, appreciating the good doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. The bad exists, and it’s something that we always want to strive to improve on where possible (some issues between couples “just are”, and will never go away).

        One of the things I haven’t talked about much is boundaries – and I think establishing and enforcing boundaries is one of THE most important things in healthy relationships (and is tied to self worth).

        One of my key themes in my posts is that BOTH people in a relationship need to be valued, and need to matter. I’m sure nothing is ever 50/50, but there has to be mutual accommodation for a relationship to work.

        Hmmm, the stuff on boundaries seems like a post I need to work on. Thanks for the input.

        Like

  2. Hey Zombiedrew,

    Really good stuff! Jim Gaffigan has a funny example of hedonic adaptation. His family was staying in the super expensive Disney Hotel near Animal Kimgdom. The first day they were conpletely amazed at the giraffes just outside their patio. By the third day it was like, move giraffe you’re blocking my view. It’s so, so true how we take even amazing things for things for granted like that I am communicating with you in some foreign place that spells checks weirdly 😉 through a magical little computer that is also my phone. Relationships are even easier to take for granted. I am practicing a technique Rick Hanson prescribes to offset the brains over focus on negativity (to keep us alive mostly). When I have a good moment with loved ones or feel safe, I stop and take 30 seconds to really notice it and get it in my brain and body. Safe and warm in bed, 30 seconds, sharing a joke with my husband, 30 seconds, smiling at my kids and then smiling back, 30 seconds. I need to remind my brain that I am safe and loved and my husband and children are full of good and wonderful qualities. It’s one of the best anti-anxiety tricks I’ve discovered too. I wonder what techniques you practice or have read about. I’m thinking I need to add more layers.

    It is really helping! I do better with this method than others I’ve read like a gratitude journal but everyone is different. The way to overcome the hedonic adaptation and the negativity bias is to find a way to really notice the good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny you ask this, because it’s true that I have read a number of relationship and self development books. But one thing I’ve found is that a lot of what I read was actually confirming with me some of the things that I had already been doing. Not saying I haven’t learned a lot from reading, because I have. But books haven’t really changed my general philosophies on life.

      Matt had a post today with similar content, and I’ll steal some of my response here from a comment I put on his site (in case you see it and it looks familiar).

      I think I generally have a fairly positive outlook on life. And not in an “everything is awesome” way. But rather I have always accepted that people and things have both good and bad to them, and that’s just part of what we are. Flaws are alright, things don’t have to be perfect. But we should always strive to grow and improve. As people, as parents, as spouses, whatever. And in fact we CAN’T improve unless we can take a hard look in the mirror and accept ourselves for who we are – flaws and all.

      I think I got this outlook from a number of places.

      First, I moved out at 19, and somehow managed to support myself working full time while being a fully time student. Looking back I really don’t know how I did it, but those years were important in showing me that I am never a victim. I can’t control anything around me, but I can control myself and how I respond to situations. Those years had some struggles but I think that was important as it made me more appreciative of things in general.

      The first experience that changed me was a trip to a third world country where I stayed for a month with my girlfriends family. 3 generations, 15 people (17 with us) living in a house that wasn’t much bigger than my apartment. Walking the streets I often saw people begging because they had lost limbs due to land mines, and there were no social services.

      But the people there weren’t down, they weren’t handing their heads at their lot in life. That was life, and they lived it to the best of their ability. Coming back from that gave me a much greater appreciation of the things that I had around me every day.

      I tried to hold onto that appreciation, but even still you tend to lose it to a degree. The second thing that hit me was walking outside with my first son when he was just over a year old. We were out for probably an hour, and we only made it about 4 houses away. He was so amazed at everything, and just watching the delight in his eyes as he touched trees, grass, bugs and cracks made me realize how much beauty there is around us that we just look past every day.

      When I’m feeling down, or sorry for myself I try to think back to those two moments.

      The other thing that has worked for me is taking a long term view of things. Yeah, things may suck today. But where do I want to be in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years? Am I doing things that will help me get there?

      It’s easy to get pissed at your partner over something that is happening right now. But are they someone you still want to be with in 10 years? If so, how will you look back on this incident in the future? Is it really a big deal? Or will it be just a bump in the road of a lifetime together? More than anything I think looking at things with a longer term focus has been my main strategy for appreciating the things around me. Not sure if you read my “Forever is Now” post, but it really sums things up.

      I think one of my biggest personal failings was falling into the trap I wrote about in my post on parenting. My family is and was super important to me, and I tried to put them at the center of almost everything. In the process though, I think my wife and I really lost each other. That was a bit of an awakening for me. It’s weird how I truly believed that my wife was really important and I thought I was living that way. But in reality we had lost the couple due to a focus on family.

      Sometimes you think you’re doing the right thing, but the reality is you can’t do everything. You only have so much time and energy, and putting too much into one area means others suffer.

      Like

  3. You know the comparison part is really interesting. I remember reading that we are happiest when we are 20% better than other people in our comparison group. Happiness is not really correlated on an objective measure. Our primitive brain always wants to compare to our “tribe”.

    So if I live in a nice house worth $300,000 I will be happiest if I’m in a neighborhood of slightly less nice $250,000 houses. I will be prone to be unhappy living in an even nicer $400,000 house surrounded by $500,000 houses. I have to constantly fight my fast primitive thinking with conscious exercises of gratitude. It’s also helpful to understand why I tend to feel envious or ungrateful. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, it’s just my primitive brain taking. Just like my fight or flight response. Truly needed in rare instances but problematic (anxiety/anger etc) for 99% of my routine life.

    Hey I recognized my comment in the college boyfriend thing. You know what’s interesting about that is that I had read enough books at that point to know that thinking that was not serious comparison but diagnostic of my memory distortion. I had read that Gottman’s research can predict relationship distress based on how couples tell their “how they met” story. Their memory of it literally changes and becomes more negative. They will say things like “even then he was selfish and was late”. The memories of their previous relationships are distorted positively. There is a reason I broke up with my old boyfriend. Lol. So when I thought of that comparison, it was really diagnostic to me they I was in the “out of love” phase not really thinking I should have married my ex. This is why I find relationship research and books so helpful, it helps you understand what is real and what is an optical illusion because you’re unhappy. It also gives you a map for how to get out of the forest of despair and unhappiness.

    Here’s another thing I learned from the books, it is all very predictable. My comment described an 18 year process. If you had asked me at year 8 I would have described a reasonably happy marriage but the termites were there eating away in a very predictable pattern toward breakdown.

    Here’s another thing I learned, the pattern I described is one common one. I am not conflict avoidant which is why it ended up settling in the common anxious/avoidant pursue withdraw pattern. But it is also common to have two conflict avoidant people and there the termites eat away and it just looks and feels like boredom. Same “not in love” thing but less drama. The underlying issues are the same though. I know you have read a lot of books too so you know what I mean.

    Of course, the comparison thing that you were talking about is real too and relates to expectations, your relative advantages/disadvantages to your tribe etc. I agree do much that we have to consciously work to emphasize the good things we often become “nose blind” to.

    I really like evidence based big picture style of your blog. I am reading and learning as I continue to challenge my thinking to change my pig headed ways and figure out what good relationships are supposed to look like and how to get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa,

      I do think comparisons are natural, but also very bad and a source of great unhappiness. We compare ourselves to others based on broken information. You comment on the 20% better/worse idea, and I get that. What you see around you becomes your frame of reference, so that’s what you judge yourself against. But even then, the judgements are broken. Let’s say everyone on my block has exactly the same $250k house. Well that’s what you can SEE, but what does that really mean? Maybe some people are mortgage free while others are in debt up to their eyeballs.

      Comparison is broken for a few reasons. We only “see” what other people present. People try not to show their struggles, or their dark sides. So how things appear can be very misleading. I had a co-worker kill himself a few years back, and it was a huge shock because I never saw his struggles. At work he put on a brave face, while inside he was dying. Had I or others known, maybe we could have helped him. Maybe things would have been different. Who knows. But the point is, what I “saw” was very different from what was really going on. So if I was comparing myself to him, my comparison was completely broken.

      When we compare, we are often looking for “proof” that things out there are better then what we have. And it’s really easy to find that proof when that is our objective.

      I loved that “college boyfriend” comment, because even if it was made in a facetious manner, a lot of people do that exact thing.

      While in a negative spiral (personally, or in thier relationship) they blind themselves to the good in their current situation. And then they start making broken comparisons. To an old boyfriend maybe, conveniently ignoring the fact that there were issues there as well, plus they aren’t the same person now that they were then. Or maybe to a fantasy version of a current co-worker, with an emotional affair potentially growing into more. In all cases, people convince themselves that “life would be better if…”

      To me that’s a very dangerous form of thinking. Because there can always be more. There can always be better. So yeah, maybe life COULD be better if. But who cares? Instead of looking for ways to make things better by changing things externally, how can I make it better by rewiring myself INTERNALLY. Thinking patterns can change everything.

      I’ve got a good buddy who has struggled with lifelong anxiety problems, and his solution to his problems wasn’t really to change his situation. Changing his situation was always a temporary fix that kept him unhappy (and also left the responsibility for his unhappiness on everything else). To truly change things he needed to change how he approached and looked at his situation. That change came from within, and was sustainable.

      We may not all suffer with severe anxiety disorders, but I think the same ideas can be applied to almost any situation.

      Like

  4. Great article the only thing I would take issue with is the soul mate thing. I think soul mates can exist but only if we work on our relationships and ourselves. I agree the soul mate is not just there waiting but I think it’s what we should all strive for in the relationships we have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sam, it may not have been clear what I meant about soul mates in this post as I just gave it a one or two sentence description (whereas I’ve written a whole post on it before – https://thezombieshuffle.com/2015/02/20/if-only-things-were-perfect/).

      When people use the term “soul mate”, I consider that the same as the idea of “the one”. And to me this is the notion that there is one person out there who, if/when we meet them everything will be great and wonderful and life will be perfect. It’s THAT notion of a soul mate that I am completely against.

      I think that is a romanticized ideal that does more harm then good, because relationships can be hard. Generally they require effort, and there will be times that it will be hard to get along. To me, that’s alright and is normal.

      But when people have this notion of “the one”, there is often a sense that problems indicate there is something wrong with the relationship. And when relationships fail, it’s is usually just because we “haven’t met the right person yet”. I think that’s a really destructive idea.

      As you said, we need to work on both our relationships and ourselves. And we should always strive to make both of those the best that they could possibly be. When we do this, and we find someone who shares a similar mindset then we have found someone who we can have a healthy relationship with, and we can stay with for life. And a big part of that will be learning to work through issues together in a way that both people feel valued. Once you’ve found that person you can definitely think of them as your soul mate – and that’s great.

      When that happens though, it is the kindness, caring and love of two imperfect people who choose to be perfect for each other that makes it work. And not the idea that this person was just “the one” to MAKE everything perfect.

      Hope that makes sense.

      Thanks for the comment and the reblog, I appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

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