How to Improve your Life without Changing a Thing

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A few posts back I mentioned watching the movie Wild.  It’s about a lady whose life has hit “rock bottom”, and how she finds herself again and reboots her life by going on a hike.

I haven’t read “Eat, Pray, Love” (or seen the movie), but my understanding is that it deals with similar concepts.  There is a woman recovering from a difficult divorce, who goes on a journey to find who she is and what she’s looking for in life – joy, spirituality and love.

There are many similar stories about “transformative journeys”, where people come to a point in life where they are questioning things:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

So they embark on journeys of self-discovery; which usually involve walking away from the life they had and the life they knew, discovering *something* about themselves, and coming back a changed and hopefully more whole person.

 

In 1949, Joseph Campbell released a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He had studied mythology from different cultures, and found a common thread in most mythology is “the hero’s journey”.  In the hero’s journey, someone starts in an ordinary world, and begins a quest only after they are compelled to by some event or tragedy.  Their quest takes them to different places, and a journey of growth and awakening, until they finally return to a variation on their old life, where they are more at peace and balanced.

At its essence, the hero’s journey is a story of personal change, and growth.  And stories like Wild, or Eat, Pray, Love tap into this basic narrative.

 

Think of the questions:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

These are hard questions, and ones I think we all ask ourselves from time to time.  The hero’s journey appeals to us because at some level, we have all thought of just walking away from everything and starting over.  Or at the very least, taking a “break” from our regular life and having our own journey (come on, admit it.  I know I’ve thought it, and for the most part I like my life).

The thing is, it’s not really an option for most of us.

Most of us can’t just walk away, or even take a time out from our regular life.

We have responsibilities that make this impossible – jobs, mortgages, kids, etc.  Impossible may be a strong word, but at the very least it’s extremely difficult.  Part of the challenge is, our choices have implications – so if we just decide to walk away from our jobs, financial obligations or families; chances are we are walking away forever.  These aren’t the sort of things you can just “test out”.

 

There’s a deeper problem with the hero’s journey however.

Even if we could just walk away and go on a journey of discovery and transformation, those stories are misleading; because they tell only part of the story.  They are kind of like romance stories which end with the couple getting married.  The romance leading up to the wedding may be the exciting or romantic part, but it’s just the beginning.

Just as finding love is very different from being able to hold onto it forever, having a transformative journey and finding yourself in the short term doesn’t mean you won’t end up just as lost again in the future.

Making changes is one thing.  Sustaining them is something else.

 

I have a childhood buddy who went on his own version of the hero’s journey.

We were probably in our early 30’s at the time, and he was working a professional career.  One day I received a group email from him saying he had quit his job and was moving across the country to become a white water rafting instructor.

Ummm, alright.

He and I had gone for lunch a few months prior, and I had no idea anything like this was looming, so I assumed something must have happened.  But he was gone, and we didn’t speak for a number of years.

A few years ago I heard he was back, so we got together one night for dinner.

I had to ask – what the hell had happened?  Why did he leave?

I’m sure there were a number of factors, but one of them he told me was deep dissatisfaction with the regular 9-5 life, where you are caught in this cycle of work, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat.  He asked himself those same questions – what am I doing?  Why am I doing this?  Is this all there is?

He had no dependents, and he had always loved the outdoors.

So he left.

 

Yet here he was, back home.

Back in the same career he had walked away from.  Largely living the same life he had been living before.

I asked him – if this was a life he needed to walk away from, why was he back?  And was he happy (or at least content) now, back living his old life?

In response, he told me a bit about the past few years of his life.

He had been living a fairly nomadic life.  He worked as a white water rafting guide/instructor during part of the year, and when the season was done he travelled the world.  He saw all sorts of things; amazing sights and places.  Thing is, he largely saw them alone.

He would meet women, and have some companionship.  But he was never in one place for very long; so with any relationship he got into, both people knew it was a temporary thing.  And after a while, he started to feel rootless and yearn for something more.

It wasn’t just that though.

Over time he found his job as a white water rafting instructor wasn’t what he thought it would be.  He had become sick of the day to day office life and wanted to have more adventure and excitement in his life.  Yet somehow, spending his days on the rapids was no longer exciting.

It was no longer fulfilling.

I remember sitting there in the restaurant, and him looking at me and saying:

“You know, I realized that it doesn’t matter what you are doing.  Eventually, everything becomes work”.

Those words still resonate with me, and I find them very powerful.

Eventually, everything becomes work.  Everything.

 

Everything becomes work, yet here he was back doing the same work he had done before.  So I asked him, what had changed?

The realization that everything eventually becomes work made him understand he had two options.

  1. When even the adrenaline rush of riding the rapids can become routine, how can we ever expect life to remain fresh and exciting? We can’t, unless we keep changing things up.  So he could either continue changing things up every time routine started to set in, and go off on some other adventure.  But since everything becomes routine, this would apply to jobs, relationships, lifestyle, etc; and he would always be on the move.
  2. The other option was changing his approach, so that was what he did. He was able to handle going back to his old job and his old life because he changed his mental approach.  His outlook, and attitude were now different.  He accepted that life isn’t always fun, and isn’t always exciting.  He approached his job as something he may not love, but also didn’t hate.  And it was enough for him, because it allowed him to support the life he wanted.

 

If you really look at the hero’s journey, what is it about?

Is it about the quest?  The adventure?

Was the story of Wild really about going on a hike?  Was Eat, Pray, Love really about escaping to a foreign land to, umm, eat, pray and love (sorry, I told you I haven’t read it)?  Was my buddy’s journey really about white water rafting?

No, the journey (or the quest) is just a short term thing, a break from ordinary life.  That may recharge someone for a bit, but it’s temporary.

Sustained change is about the lessons we learn; it’s really about personal and spiritual growth.  It’s about letting go of who you think you want to be and the life you think you should have, and instead accepting yourself for who you are.  It’s about finding peace, and contentment, and meaning in your life as it is now.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t change or improve, but it does mean you don’t have to.

 

What can you actually change in life?

Often circumstances dictate things, and you aren’t really able to change much.  You can get a different job, but eventually it will become work.  You can find a different partner, but they will have good and bad too.

Most of us can’t walk away from our lives.  We can’t go on some incredible transformative journey or adventure.  But I think we CAN come to terms with the fact that our life IS our adventure.

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Our attitude shapes almost everything.  Our expectations shape our experiences.  And how we approach things becomes our reality.

As my buddy found, eventually everything becomes work.  Everything becomes routine.

When things become routine, its human nature for us to start taking things for granted.  And when we do that we stop seeing the good in our lives because it has become our new normal. 

Instead, we see the negative.   We see the things we feel are missing, and we focus on our flaws, and how we aren’t who we thought we would be.

 

We are the only ones who can turn that around.

We can start by accepting we won’t always be happy, and we don’t need to be.  By accepting that things will suck sometimes, and that’s alright.

Changing our outlook involves changing our focus away from what we don’t have, and instead focusing on what we do have.

To do that, we need to remind ourselves everyday about the good we have right now.  We need to start practicing active appreciation, and teach ourselves to see the beauty all around us that we have become blind to.

Real change comes from within.  And the one thing you can always change is your outlook and attitude.

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Words Mean Nothing

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A number of years back when my personal life started falling apart, at the urging of my sister I went to see a counselor for the first time in my life.

I have to admit, I didn’t really want to go.  I had always considered myself a mentally and emotionally “strong” person, and believed I was capable of handling pretty much anything life could throw at me.

In many ways I still believe that; though I no longer equate being able to handle things with “strength” (resilience may be a better word).  The word strength suggests that when someone can’t handle things on their own they are weak, and that’s not the case.  In fact, recognizing and accepting when you can’t handle things on your own any more, and being willing to reach out for help in those situations a form of strength that often goes overlooked.

In any case, my sister was right.  I was struggling with the things going on in my life at the time, and although I wasn’t convinced it would do me much good to go talk to someone I figured it couldn’t do any harm either.  At worst I would waste some money and an hour of my life, so what did I have to lose?

I went.

Although it was over four years ago, I still remember some moments from that hour quite vividly.  There were things she said that were true, that I either didn’t want to believe or maybe wasn’t ready to believe at the time.

And the most important of those was when she looked at me and said (paraphrasing here):

When there is a disconnect between someone’s words and their actions, always trust their actions.  Anyone can “say” something; but words without actions mean nothing.

 

Back in the late 90’s I took a certificate program in computers (I previously has completed an arts degree, but found there wasn’t a lot of work for people with a Philosophy/Sociology background.  Who knew?).  At the time, Project Management was a relatively young field that looked like it would be a good career path.  One of my classmates and I talked about project management together, and felt that after we had established ourselves in the IT (Information Technology) field – probably five years in, we would do this together.

Seven or eight years into my career I remember this plan, so I called him up.

“Kev, it’s Drew.  Remember we talked about taking project management courses together?  Well, it’s been a while and I think it’s time so I’m going to sign up.  You still in?”

“Hmmm, I don’t know man.  Things are going pretty good in my job and that’s another couple years of school.  You go ahead, I think I’m out”.

So off I went on my own.

Obviously this is a flawed example.  A number of years had gone by since Kevin and I talked about doing project management together, and things had changed in both of our lives.  So it’s not like Kevin did anything wrong, or went back on his word here.

The point of this story isn’t just that his life had changed.  It’s that he was still interested in project management; it’s just that he wasn’t interested in it enough to actually DO something about it anymore.

It was no longer a priority.

It no longer really mattered.

 

I believe this happens a lot in life, both internally and externally.

Internally we have all of these “beliefs”.  Things that we say we want, or think.  And often we convince ourselves that these things are true.  We convince ourselves they are real.

But they aren’t.

Or perhaps more accurately, they aren’t real enough.  We may want these things, but not enough to put in the effort required.

It’s easy to find barriers to the things we want in life.

We don’t have enough time, or we don’t have enough money, or there’s just no opportunity.

So we tell ourselves things like “yes, I do want this, but this isn’t the right time.  I just need to do A, B or C first.  THEN I’ll be able to focus on that.”  We tell ourselves we will do it “tomorrow”.

But time passes, and tomorrow never comes.

 

When “tomorrow never comes” I think one of two things is happening.

Scenario one – we never TRULY wanted it.  Yeah, we may have wanted it – but people often want a lot of things.  Many say they want to be rich, but they want it to happen through a lottery winning or something.  They don’t actually want to put in the time and effort to grow a business, or they don’t really want to take the risks that have the greatest potential payoff.  Others say they want a “good body”, but they don’t actually want to worry about the hours required in the gym or the discipline required to monitor their eating habits.

It’s easy to want something, but do we TRULY want it?  Are we willing to put in the effort?  To make the sacrifices of our time and energy?

 

Scenario two – we may TRULY want something, but we are afraid; afraid that we would try, and fail.

And when we are scared to fail, it becomes easier to just never try.  After all if we never truly try, we can tell ourselves we haven’t actually failed.

It’s a lie of course.  But as humans we lie to ourselves all the times.  Failing because we didn’t even try is still failing, but we can tell ourselves it’s different and maybe we would have succeeded if we “had the right opportunity”.

When things don’t go the way we want the default wiring in our brain causes us to go through all sorts of steps to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

First we deny, and say things like “well, I didn’t really want that anyway”.

Next we blame, or justify.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that because things were too busy, and I didn’t have any money, and I…”

We tell ourselves these lies, and we convince ourselves they are true.  Because it’s a lot easier than actually facing the mirror and accepting that maybe we AREN’T the person we thought we were.  That we don’t really want to put in the work, or we are scared to fail.  That we really want life to come with an easy button.

 

Life doesn’t come with an easy button though; and sometimes things are hard.

Each person needs to make their own choices on what is ACTUALLY important to them.  And if something IS important?  They will make it happen, or at the very least they will be willing to put in effort to give them the best chance of success.

Words are easy.  They are “free”.  Effort isn’t.

If someone “says” they want something, and their actions don’t seem to support their words then the reality is for one reason or another, they don’t actually want it.  Their true values don’t match the ones they profess to have.

 

My main focus in writing is relationships, and this is where you really see this.

It’s easy to SAY you want a relationship, or you want a relationship to work.  But what are you willing to DO about it?  Are you willing to give?  To compromise?  To accept that things won’t always be easy, and that things won’t always look the way you want them to?  To accept that conflict is natural and be willing to work through that?

Do you ACTUALLY want a relationship, or do you just want the fun parts and the easy parts?  Are you just scared to be alone?

Often, I think the answer is the latter.

We DO want the relationship.  But only when it’s convenient, and when it works for us.  I think of this as wanting the perks of a relationship while still wanting to act like you are single.

That’s not the way life works.  Relationships are about two people, not just one.

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The flipside of this is being in a situation where you want the relationship but the other person doesn’t really seem to want it in the same way.

This is a very painful and difficult spot to be in, and the situation where you truly need to understand that words without action mean nothing.

I hear stories from many people who feel stuck – caught in a scenario where they want their relationship to work but their partner doesn’t seem to want it, or seems to want it only on their own terms.

These people are hurting, and their partner doesn’t seem to really care.  Often they “say” they do, and they say that they want the relationship to work.  But they don’t seem interested in actually doing anything about it.  Their actions don’t seem to match their words.

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Words mean nothing, unless they are backed by action.

Your partner may profess to care about you and want you in their life, but you need to know it and feel it.

Love isn’t just a word, it’s an action; and it should be felt through the little things.  Shared looks, smiles, affection, enjoyment of time spent together.  And by making each other a priority.

When you don’t feel like a priority and love seems to be missing, it’s easy to start questioning and doubting the relationship.  And no one should ever have to question if their partner actually wants to be with them.

If one person is starting to question whether other person really wants to be there, this needs to be communicated.  The couple needs to be able to sit down and talk about the state of the relationship, and their concerns.

Their partner needs to be willing to listen, and both hear and understand what they are saying.  And once they have heard, there has to be a lot than words.  There has to be action, and visible effort.

If there isn’t?

Then they are showing what truly matters to them.  They are showing that what truly matters does not include their relationship.  And it doesn’t include you.

 

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What is Enough?

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In my last post I discussed one of my major life/relationship philosophies; the notion that my life is not my own.  It is, but even though I am an individual my actions impact others.  Due to this I can’t just *do what I want*, I need to keep others in mind with everything I do.

One of my other major life philosophies is the concept of enough.

What is enough?

What does this even mean?

 

A few weeks back I went and saw the movie Logan (great movie by the way), and before it there was a trailer for the upcoming Fast and the Furious movie with excerpts of interviews with the directors.  In it, the directors talked about how the Fast and the Furious movies are always spectacles, and for this one they felt they needed to top the previous one.  They wanted it to be bigger and better; with more explosions and more elaborate stunts.

This idea of “bigger is better” (or “more is better”) is common in movies (particularly sequels).  And this line of thinking isn’t limited to movies, it exists everywhere in life.

If something is good, then more of that something is better, right?  We can improve anything, just by having more of it.

 

How do we know we have a “good” life?  We measure it by our happiness, right?  So it stands to reason that if we REALLY had a good life we would always be happy.  And if we’re not always happy, then something is missing.

We just need to find what that something is, and then we will be happier.

But what do we need?

More money?  A better job?  A better house?  A better body? More sex?  More friends?  More time out “having fun”?  A better lover/partner?

One of these?  Some of these?  All of these?

Will ANY of these improve the quality of our life?  Will any of them actually make us happier?

 

Personally I think our notion that you can measure quality by of life by “happiness” is broken, but the “more is better” logic tells us yes.  And who knows, maybe changing some of these things would result in improvements to our level of happiness.

If we get that raise, maybe now we can go on that trip we wanted.  Maybe we upgrade to the bigger house, or the nicer car.  If we lose that weight maybe we will feel better about ourselves.

These sorts of things do feel pretty good, at least in the moment.  But it’s always short lived.  These sorts of improvements are only temporary, because there’s a fundamental problem with “more”.

It’s doesn’t matter how much you have.  There will ALWAYS be more.

You can always make more money.  There is always a better job, a better house.  You lose those 10 pounds, and there are always other changes you can make.  Even if your partner is pretty good, there is always going to be another person out there who will be a better lover or partner.

 

Here’s the problem…

When we believe we don’t have enough, it leads to unhappiness.  Because when feel we don’t have enough, we are focused on what we DON’T have.  We are focused on what our life is “missing”.

And when we are preoccupied with what we don’t have, we are unable to be present, to actually “live” in the moment.

 

So to me, the REAL question is not about more.

The REAL question becomes, what is enough.

 

Continuous growth is unsustainable.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You can always have more.

At what point are you able to be content with what you already have?

To me, THAT is the key.  Being able to say “yes, there’s more.  But that’s alright because what I have is enough for me”.

My job is enough.  My house is enough.  My partner is enough.  My life is enough.

I am enough.

 

Enough is about appreciating what you have right now, today; instead of focusing on what you don’t.  To me, this should be a good thing, a positive.

But instead, believing that what you have is enough seems to be looked down upon.  There seems to be this notion that saying something is enough is about not striving to improve, or about settling.

And in today’s culture, settling seems to be one of the worst things you can do.

Just turn on a television, open a magazine, or listen to the radio.  Within a few minutes, you will probably see or hear something telling you how amazing you are.  How special you are, and how you deserve the best.  After all, YOU are special – You aren’t like everyone else.  You should stand out, not fit in.  So if you don’t have the best, you are settling.  And you could or should have had more.  This same approach is used in marketing to make you want to get the best for your partner, or your children.  Aren’t they special too?  Don’t you want the best for them?  Don’t THEY deserve it?

Of COURSE your kids should have the best.  Of COURSE your partner should have the best.

But here’s a secret…

 

I am not special.

You are not special.

Sorry, it’s true.  We are all just people.

Regular people, going about our regular lives and doing regular things.  Most of us get up in the morning and go to work at jobs that aren’t glamorous but allow us to live our lives.  We cook our meals, do our laundry, clean our living spaces.  We pay our bills, and hope that at the end of the day there’s enough money and/or energy left over for us to take some time out and do something special for ourselves.

This is reality for most of us, and that should be alright.

 

 

I’m not saying that no matter what you have, it should be enough for you.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t want more out of life.

Sometimes you DON’T have enough money, and it’s damned hard to get by.  Maybe your family HAS outgrown your house, or your vehicle.

And sometimes your partner IS an asshole, and you DO deserve someone who will treat you better (and in turn allow you to treat them better).

 

It’s not bad to want more, or different.

But what I AM saying is more doesn’t necessarily make things better.

 

Ask yourself this – if what you have today isn’t making you happy, why in the world would you think that more would make it better?

 

Life is multi-faceted, and there is balance to be found in everything.  There are many areas in life where we can change, and improve.  And for each of these areas we need to figure out what enough looks like for ourselves.

 

Maybe you DO need that six figure salary.  Maybe you DO need that big vacation every year.

Enough for me may not be the same as enough for you.  And that’s alright.

Each person needs to define that for themselves, and doing so involves looking inward.  It involves truly understanding ourselves, and our boundaries.  It also involves understanding the difference between need and want, and in today’s world I think we often confuse that.

More isn’t better.  And it won’t make us happier.  And actually, sometimes it’s the scarcity of something that makes us appreciate even more when we do have it.

 

When I look at my life, there are a ton of things I would *love* to do.  I love travelling, and would be happy to do more of it.  I wish I could eat out more, or at least at some of the places I know are outside of my price range.  I wish I had more free time to just slack off, and do some things for me.

But then I ask myself, what REALLY matters?  What are my REAL priorities?

My children.  My family.  The people who actually matter in my life, and who I matter to.

I know what love looks like, and I know what caring looks like.  And I know what it means to me.

When look at my life I can truthfully say I like what I see.  And I know that for me at least, it’s enough.

What Do You Remember?

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The first time I experienced death, it was the passing of my Grandfather.

My phone rang late at night/early in the morning, and my brother give me the news.  My Grandfather hadn’t been well, but it still came as a shock to me.  My brother lived close at the time, so he picked me up we went to my Grandparents house to be with the family.

I remember seeing my Grandmother when I came in, and not really knowing what to say.  I just gave her a hug and told her I was sorry.

It’s been over 20 years, but I still remember a lot of details of that night.  And it’s not just that night, I also remember other details of that time in my life.

For example I remember what music I was listening to at that time in my life, and there is a song from that time that I have come to associate with his passing.  Whenever I hear that song now, I think of my Grandfather.

 

Remembering Experiences

Memory is an interesting thing.  When I look back on my life there are all sorts of moments that stand out in some way.  I remember a lot of “firsts”, and other significant occasions.

Like my Grandfathers death, they aren’t all happy moments.  Some are happy, some are sad, fun, or silly.  Hell, some are moments that I wish I could forget.

The one thing these moments have in common is that they all had an impact on me in one way or another.

 

Now, contrast this with the things we don’t remember.

What are those?

That’s a trick question I guess, asking you to think of the things you don’t remember.  But what we don’t remember is the mundane.  I mean, can you tell me what you had for dinner a month ago today?  I doubt it – unless a month ago today was a special day like a birthday or an anniversary (and even then I doubt it).

We don’t remember cleaning the house, grocery shopping, doing the laundry or putting gas in the car.  These things are important and need to be done; but they don’t impact us.

The routine moments of life tend to blur one into the next, and during those moments we’re kind of on autopilot.

That’s not to say these impactful moments are necessarily any better, or more important than the routine moments of our lives.  But they stay with us when the other moments don’t.

 

“Firsts”

Why is this important?

It’s important because memories and experiences matter.

When a couple meets, they share all sorts of firsts.  Their first date, their first kiss, meeting each other’s families and friends for the first time, the first time they have sex, the birth of a child, etc.

All of these moments matter, and as a couple builds a life together they are also building shared experience.

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Over time though many couples find themselves in a rut, where life has become nothing more than routine.  Routine is important, and necessary; but when this happens it can make it seem like all they have left is shared history; and memories of the time when things were better and happier.

(Interestingly memory can be faulty, and our brain can rewrite our past in order to justify our present – but that’s another post for another day)

Often a big part of the problem is they have stopped sharing these impactful moments.  Life becomes all about nothing more work, kids, and maintaining a household.

With all these competing needs and limited time, they stop nurturing and growing the relationship.  After all, they already have each other right?  They’re already committed to each other, so why MAKE time for the relationship when there is another event to bring the kids to, or another load of laundry to be done.

But when the relationship stops being a focus, they stop building meaningful moments “as a couple” together.

Somewhere along the way, what started as comfortable familiarity turns into apathy, and eventually a recognition that the spark has been lost.  This realization that the spark is gone is a painful one, and can lead to questioning what it means to the relationship.

 

Pulling Away

Failing relationships are often characterized by two people who still love each other, but no longer know how to connect with each other on a deeper level.

And when couples find themselves in this rut, they often make a big mistake.  They each desperately crave the connection they “used to have” with each other.  But they don’t know how to get it back, and that hurts.  So in response to that pain, they shut down and withdraw.

They stop building meaningful moments together, because they have stopped engaging each other.  And without continuing to grow their relationship, all that is left is memory of “when times were better”.  And without effort, they are virtually guaranteeing the relationship will not succeed.

 

Building in Experience

I think this notion of remembering experiences is important to keeping your relationship alive.  And these moments don’t have to be big, elaborate or expensive.  We remember “firsts”, so add some novelty.  Take a class together, try something you’ve never tried.  Whether you like it or end up hating it, it’s still an experience you are sharing together.

Life can’t be just about work, kids, domestic chores (with some time taken out to watch TV).  Sure that stuff matters, but for the health of your relationship, you need to spend time on it.  And if you’re too busy, you need to make time

I’ve said before you can have anything, just not everything.  There are limits to the amount of time, energy and money we have.  We can’t have everything, so we need to focus our priorities on what’s truly important.  If we want our relationships to last, that should be reflected in the amount of energy we put into them.

If the relationships is always taking the hit because other stuff gets in the way, it should be no surprise when it starts to struggle.  As the saying goes, garbage in garbage out.  What you get out of something is directly correlated to what you put into it.

So show that.  Don’t let your relationship become nothing more than a memory of better times.  Make your relationship a priority.  Take time out each day to let all the distractions and busyness of life fade away, and focus on each other.

And never stop building experiences together.

 

 

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.