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.