The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus advised, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Yet. For some, the pursuit of happiness can be a never ending quest. The problem is what is known as hedonic adaptation.
The story goes something like this: You buy a new wardrobe and you experience a boost in happiness. But then this minor lift wears off, and you want to buy a new watch. Yet after the new watch, the same thing happens – you quickly adjust to the new purchase and your happiness levels return right back to where they were. For some, the purchases may be larger or smaller but the outcome is the same – they are on a hedonic treadmill where what they have is never enough to make them happy. They simply have to keep acquiring more.
When Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, along with co-author Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, surveyed 481 people about their happiness, they found that recent positive changes did initially make them happier, however, these happiness boosts didn’t last (Sheldon, 2012).
As Sheldon explains, “The majority got used to the change that had made them happy in the first place. They stopped being happy because they kept wanting more and raising their standards, or because they stopped having fresh positive experiences of the change, for example they stopped doing fun things with their new boyfriend and started wishing he was better looking. A few were able to appreciate what they had and to keep having new experiences. In the long term, those people tended to maintain their boost, rather than falling back where they started.” (Sheldon, 2012).
The problem with many purchases, as Sheldon notes, is that they tend to just sit there – they don’t keep on providing varied positive experiences. Further, the more we rely on material purchases to make us happy, the faster our aspirations rise, similar to an addiction. New purchases then become nothing more than quick fixes.
And just like an addiction, there is a “let down” after those purchases –especially if there is buyer’s remorse. Sheldon also noted that the best life changes don’t necessarily equate to new purchases. Although a shiny new possession can boost happiness, that purchase has to be experienced anew every day and appreciated for what it brings to have any lasting effect on happiness.
This might also explain the inverse relationship between materialism and gratitude.
Analyzing 246 members of the department of marketing attending a mid-sized private university in the southwestern United States, with an average age of 21, a research team from Baylor University used a 15-item scale of materialism to demonstrate that those who were the most focused on materialism also experienced the lowest levels of gratitude (Tsang, et. al., 2014).
As study lead author Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences notes, gratitude and materialism are diametrically opposed. She explains, “Gratitude is a positive mood. It’s about other people. Previous research that we and others have done finds that people are motivated to help people who help them – and to help others as well. We’re social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health,” (Tsang, 2014). Materialism, on the other hand, tends to be “me-centered” and focuses on what we don’t have, impairing the ability to be grateful for what we do have.
“Our ability to adapt to new situations may help explain why ‘more stuff’ doesn’t make us any happier. As we amass more and more possessions, we don’t get any happier – we simply raise our reference point. That new 2,500-square-foot house becomes the baseline for your desires for an even bigger house. It’s called the Treadmill of Consumption. We continue to purchase more and more stuff but we don’t get any closer to happiness, we simply speed up the treadmill” (Roberts, 2014).
While previous research has suggested that materialists are less satisfied overall with their lives, are more likely to be unhappy and have lower self-esteem, the finding that they experience less gratitude helps explain why they are also less involved in community events and less likely to find meaning and fulfillment in life.
Yet this is not to say that we adapt to all things in life. Major life changes – including marriage, divorce, or debilitating illness – can indeed have long-term impact on happiness levels, says a Michigan State University psychologist.
Looking at two large national prospective panel studies, one in Germany and the other in Great Britain, that spanned 24 years and 15 years, respectively, Richard Lucas and colleagues captured levels of life satisfaction both prior to and after major life events such as marriage, divorce, unemployment and illness or disability.
While on average most people did adapt to major life changes – such as getting married or losing a spouse – within a couple of years, not all changes had equal impact. Getting divorced and becoming unemployed at the same time, or experiencing a physical debilitation, major illness or injury, for example, all led to more lasting decreases in happiness (Lucas, et. al., 2007).
While Lucas does not deny the role of hedonic adaptation, he suggests that individual differences in the ability to bounce back from difficult life circumstances might be related instead to the presence of positive emotions. The takeaway seems to be that while happiness cannot be acquired materially, as we simply adapt to our surroundings, it can also be challenged by life events. Yet it is also happiness (and positive emotions) that help us get through the tough times.
There are many happiness chimeras. Wealth, status, and image, although nice, only cause us to compare ourselves to those who have more, and consequently, feel less happy. Acquiring more material possessions only seems to land us on a hedonic treadmill where we are never going fast enough (or buying enough).