Happiness is not a “when” and a “where”; it is a “here” and a ”now.”
— Zig Ziglar
This too shall pass.
I just got off the phone with my mechanic, and he had some bad news for me.
Sarah and I have had our beloved Nissan Sentra since 2007, and after 170,000 uneventful miles, ol’ BOBPLEX finally needs some work.
$700 worth, to be specific.
I wasn’t thrilled to get this news, but I happened to be writing an article about how we deal with positive and negative experiences. I consoled myself with the thought that this car repair was irritating, but unlikely to affect my long term happiness.
Sounds a little glib, I know. But understanding something called the hedonic treadmill really can help you prolong life’s joys and mute its sorrows.
Plus, it’s great fodder for conversation when things get quiet around the dinner table (just ask Sarah, who is definitely not sick of hearing about the hedonic treadmill and similar concepts).
Anyway, read on!
“The Hedonic What Now?”
Let’s define our terms.
In positive psychology, the hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) refers to our tendency to return to the same level of happiness despite good or bad things occurring in our lives.
Here’s my favorite technical definition:
Hedonic adaptation is the psychological process by which people become accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus, such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time
— Frederick and Loewenstein, as cited by Lyubomirsky
In other words: When we have a positive experience, we get excited for a while (“Sweet, these shoes are on sale!”) and our happiness level briefly increases. Eventually, though, we simply get used to it (“What, these old things?”), and our happiness level returns to where it was.
Here’s the treadmill part: If we want to prolong that momentary increase in happiness, we need to have another positive experience. And another. And another (this often consists of buying more and more stuff).
A slightly different way of describing the same phenomenon is hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation asks you to envision your happiness as hovering around a set point, like the setting on a thermostat. If you open a window, the thermostat adapts by turning on the AC, returning the room to the original temperature.
Is this kind of a bummer? There’s good news, too: the same thing happens with negative experiences. In the long term, the bad things that happen to us tend not to diminish our happiness much. We might be miserable for a while, but we recover.
This hedonic treadmill stuff isn’t just interesting; it’s supremely useful. Let’s talk about three ways to put it to good use.
1. Cultivate Gratitude for Positive Experiences
One of the quickest ways to increase our happiness is by choosing to feel gratitude. You can do it in about two minutes, and anyone capable of reading this blog has a lot to be grateful for.
Feeling grateful shifts our focus from what we don’t have to what we do, and like squeezing all the juice from an orange, it’s a way of extracting maximum value from our circumstances.
2. Take the Long View of Negative Experiences
First of all, most bad things just aren’t all that bad.
So my car’s broken, and it’s going to cost me $700. In the long run, this event isn’t even a blip on the radar. I’ll likely barely remember this experience in a year, and in 5 years, I’ll likely not remember it at all.
Even real tragedies affect our happiness level less than we think. When we lose a job, a career, or even a loved one, we might be hurting for a long time. But in the long run, we’ll recover.
3. Apply the Hedonic Treadmill to Purchases
A great time to apply this information is when we’re considering buying something. It’s worth asking ourselves “Will this really make me happier?” Here’s a specific method that I like to use (if you’re mulling over a new purchase right now, try it out).
- Instead of imagining how elated you’ll feel when you buy the item, imagine how you’ll feel about it six months later.
- In your mind, picture the item after six months of use, with a few scratches and a fine layer of dust. Are you still glad you bought it? Are you using is regularly? Is it adding real value to your life?
- Think of other items you’ve bought in the past, both purchases you regret and purchases you’re still happy with. In six months, which category will this item fall into?
This kind of thinking is extremely clarifying. It can be either a cold shower or a green light, and it’s saved me a lot of money.
So my car will be fixed tomorrow, and the sting of the $700 repair bill will wear off pretty quickly.
Let’s say you gave me a brand new car instead. (Wow, you must really like the blog!) I’d be over the moon.
But not for that long.