Getting happy isn’t hard, maintaining it is the challenge
You may not have ever heard the phrase before, but you’ve almost certainly experienced it; and more than just experiencing it, it’s almost certainly one of the more significant factors affecting your ability to experience genuine, enduring happiness.
Well, hedonic adaptation can be defined as “the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.”
In the most famous study on this topic, conducted back in 1978 by Phillip Brickman and his colleagues from Northwest University and the University of Massachusetts, 22 lottery winners and 29 paraplegics were interviewed to determine changes in their happiness levels attributable to the specific event they’d experienced (i.e. winning the lottery or becoming paralysed).
In short, and surprisingly to many, although both groups described changes to their happiness in the short term (in the first few months the lottery winners were happier, and those with spinal injuries were unhappier), in the longer term, several years later, both groups reported being no more or less happy than they had been before the change to their circumstances.
Some have interpreted these, and similar findings, as meaning that we all have a happiness “set-point”; a genetically pre-determined happiness level we’ll sit at regardless of life circumstances or choices. Most, however, agree that if something is “set” it’s more likely to be a “range”, rather than a point, as there’s no doubt that our happiness is and can be influenced by the way we decide to live our lives each and every day (e.g. if we choose to exercise or meditate, focus on problems or what’s going well, practice gratitude and/or build positive relationships etc.).
That being said, there’s no doubt humans are remarkably adaptable; which explains another strong and well known finding: that receiving a salary increase only leads to short term gains in happiness. After a relatively short period of time, however, we just get used to the higher level of income.
In summary, then, the wonderful human trait that is adaptability, the quality that arguably contributed to us evolving into the incredible beings that we are, might also be the villain in the story of happiness. One of our greatest strengths when it comes to coping with adversity and challenges and change, might be one of our greatest weaknesses when it comes to enjoying sustained happiness.
Because no matter how good things get, we just get used to good; and then we want more good!
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