I can’t begin to tell you how often I have played this game. You know, “the happiness game” where I become fixated on this “major” situation that may or may not be so serious. But it is to me at the time, and if only I can accomplish the goal or avoid the calamity then I’ll be sooo happy.
Have you ever had a “major” thing, be it a goal, desire or wish that you fantasized and dreamed about daily, even to the point of obsession?
I bet that with enough sweat, hard work and tenacity you reached that major goal just like I have. Maybe you bathed in euphoria afterward, but how long did the high last?
According to psychological research, there’s a name to the drop off in happiness after having achieved or reached your coveted goal. The phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation and it’s essentially when we adapt to whatever it is we’ve achieved regardless of how grand the result. In fact, the idea is you return back to the same emotional state before your big reward.
This is true for lottery winners, as one notable study found that habituation, the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus, drained the once inflated feeling of jubilance. In other words, your body, spirit, emotions and overall being acclimates to your new life. Regardless of the millions you’ve just inherited, you become accustomed to your new state and your once elevated dopamine levels dull. If you feel “blah” before your big win or grandiose accomplishment then eventually your body will return to that “blah” state.
Humans are adaptable creatures. Some of us just tend to stick with routine and fight change more than others, but ultimately we’re all built naturally with adaptability genetically imbedded in all of our cells.
Ever heard the phrase “The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence?” In most, if not, all cases the grass really does appear greener…at first. We really do tend to want what we don’t have or at least it’s a psychologically more appealing. But we tend to forget what makes others’ grass greener than ours. They’re better at watering than we are.
If you seek to break out of repetition, strive for perfection, wanting to have your cake and eat it, too, and are constantly dissatisfied with your life then you may have the “grass is greener” syndrome, according to a PsychCentral article.
“This is where the element of fantasy comes in, and with the fantasy comes projection. We’re going to want what we don’t have, and there’s a fantasy that we’ll get what we don’t have, and that the parts that we’re currently happy with won’t be sacrificed in this change. However, what ends up happening is that after the “honeymoon phase” of making the change, we find ourselves wanting to flip to the other side of the fence again because we discover that there are other things that we don’t have, and because the novelty of the change wears off. It ends up being true, that we always want what we don’t have, even if we’ve already jumped the fence several times.”
You can fill in the blank. It can be related to your career and finances or wanting to trade in your old car or romantic partner for a new one. Virtually anything can have the illusion of being “better” when you fantasize about it. The “greener grass” syndrome goes hand-in-hand with unrealistic goal setting, when our desires always seem just out of our reach. If we can only reach that milestone, regardless of how small or large, then we will surely experience the pinnacle of bliss, right?
So, how can we combat the happiness-deflating ramifications of hedonic adaptation? One Harvard study with a very telling title, Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation, suggests that giving up something pleasurable can actually lead to happiness.
Another way to bounce back from allowing hedonic adaptation to numb your joy is through gratitude. In her book The How of Happiness, author and psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky explains how gratitude not only helps promote the ability to savor positive life experiences, but it equally boosts self-esteem while also helping people cope with stress and trauma. Gratitude, Lyubomirsky continues, also encourages moral behavior, builds social bonds by nurturing relationships, inhibits tendencies to unhealthily compare ourselves, and stifles negative emotions such as anger, greed and bitterness from surfacing. Finally, gratitude ultimately helps to combat hedonic adaptation.
The Bottom Line:
Deciding not to settle isn’t a bad thing; it means that you push yourself to better your life. You need to stay on the competitive edge with the way the world is today. For many professions, a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough anymore. Having one or two skill sets but no other strengths also limits you. You have to diversify your skill set and spending money on higher education is never a total waste. You also want to move upward with your career. No one wants to be demoted, downsized, laid off, fired, or simply have to make a lateral career move with little or no growth potential.
On the flip side, there’s a line one must draw because ultimately, you can say, “I will be happy when ________.” You might feel a little depressed, have poor self-image or self-worth and feel “blah” because you haven’t filled in that blank. You say to yourself if only I can get there. If only I can have that. However, according to human biology and science, hedonic adaptation then sets in. You’ll adapt to that big house and money and then you’re body and mind will return to its original depressed state. There will never be enough accomplishment or things to fill the void inside us. But you and I can find a way to simply savor everything we have already in our lives.
I was watching “Paralyzed and Pregnant” on Discovery the other night, which documented Claudia Salley. She lost her 4-month-old son Levi and was paralyzed from the armpits down after an 18-wheeler plowed into the back of her family’s vehicle. What blew me away was that after her son was taken from her, she and her husband naturally conceived twin boys. Rather than being unhappy at being robbed of the chance to ever walk again or see her deceased son Levi grow into a man, she kept repeating her gratitude. She was grateful for having functioning arms to hold her babies. She was grateful to be alive. Now I am paraphrasing but she said something like, “I thank God every day that I am alive. I am such a happy woman and I am so grateful.”
It’s all perspective. It sounds generic to say that we ought to be grateful for our ability to walk and see and at least have a roof over our heads. But, you can also be grateful that you’ve come this far. Because ultimately you and I are not where we once were. No one is. You might have digressed and taken a few steps back from where you once were or you might be in a much better place. Ultimately, good or bad, you’ve learned something about yourself through all of life’s situations.
And where we are right now and all that we have right now ought to be savored. I am guilty of not doing this enough and maybe you are too. So, my challenge to all of us is to seriously seek gratitude in all that we have in our lives. Also, consider giving up something. It can be tangible or intangible. You can donate clothes or decide to give up eating chocolate or drinking caffeine. You might decide to give up using swear words. Either way, you’ll find that by sacrificing a little something that is enjoyable or habitual (whether healthy or not) and also finding gratitude in what you have will help prevent you from reaching hedonic adaptation and instead will focus you on sustaining your happiness.