There’s an interesting phenomenon that we all experience when it comes to happiness. Even though we all experience it, we usually have no idea it’s happening to us. I saw how this phenomenon was affecting me only after I read about it in a psychology book. And now that I am aware of it, I notice it every time it happens. In this article I’ll tell you how it happens and what you can do about it. Once you have read this, you’ll know what to do to feel happier for longer!
There are many things that make us happy in life: a pay raise, a better apartment, a vacation in Rome, a new relationship, a dream that is about to come true and so on. We are all different and we get happiness from slightly different experiences, but in the end, we are all human so we are all (more or less) the same. When it comes to happiness, we are subjected to the same laws. And one of these laws dictate that humans gradually lose their happiness.
This is my cup of…sushi?
I’d like to illustrate how this works with an example from my life. One of my favourite foods right now is sushi. I started eating sushi at the end of 2017 and I’ve been loving it ever since. My boyfriend and I still eat this about once or twice a month.
When enough time passes from the last time I had sushi, I start craving it again. It takes about 2 weeks for this to happen. Then I start thinking about how delicious it is and how I’d love to go back for a veggie sushi mix.
When I get to the restaurant, I’m starving and very excited about it. The first taste always makes me feel like I’m on cloud nine! I am very aware of its flavours and smell and I savour every little bit. But by the time I get to the 5th piece of sushi, it no longer feels special. And by the time I’m done eating, I know that I don’t want to eat sushi again for a while.
So in the course of about 10 minutes the joy that I get from eating sushi goes from 10/10 to 2/10. How is this possible and why?
The law of decreasing happiness
Have you noticed this phenomenon in your life? Was there some thing, event or person that made you feel over the moon in the beginning but seemed less special and happiness-inducing over time?
How did you feel when wearing a new, fancy dress for the first time? Like you were Marilyn Monroe walking the red carpet, right? And how did you feel when wearing it the 15th time? You probably felt like you were invisible or nobody would notice you in a crowd. The perfect dress is now suddenly just another dress.
And how did you feel while driving your new car the first days? You probably drove everywhere because you couldn’t believe it that you finally own that dream car. But how did you feel about it 5 years later? That dream car you used to admire on a poster now is just the things you use to move around.
And it’s the same with everything you can think about: a Maserati car, a 15-bedroom home, a tropical vacation in Bora-Bora, a supermodel girlfriend, a CEO millionaire boyfriend, a $30,000-income, a Gucci bag and…EVERYTHING ELSE.
Why does this happen? It’s because we are humans and we get used to things very quickly. The thing that seems special and exciting at first is ordinary and unappealing a bit later. The value or characteristics of those things never go away, we just get used to them.
Those amazing things, events and people are still amazing, we just can’t see it anymore.
This process was studied by psychologists and that’s how we know about it now. It is called habituation or the hedonic treadmill. It’s as if there is a universal law that dictates that the happiness we derive from certain experience must decline over time.
A race you can never win
It is true, however, that certain things make us feel different “degrees” of happiness and for different periods. The happiness I get from eating sushi is not the same as the happiness I get from moving into a nicer apartment or falling in love.
The bigger, more exciting and more “expensive” the experience is, the more happiness is generates. Sushi makes you feel happy for an hour, a new wardrobe can make you feel happy for a week.
But we are always stuck on this rollercoaster ride. When a new and pleasant experience occurs, our happiness level goes up until it reaches a maximum point. Then it starts to slowly decline until we end up at the same level we were before this experience happened.1
It seems that our life is like a happiness roller-coaster. We always go up and we always come down – essentially in the same place where we started.
Even though we do not really understand how this process happens and why, we do notice when our happiness begins to fade. That’s why we are always searching for a newer, bigger and better thing to make us happy. The process is basically the same as the ones governing our hunger, thirst and need for sleep. We eat, drink water, sleep and then we feel better. When the need arises again, we have to seek food, water or rest once again. And the cycle repeats itself.
This is one of the things that pushes us to always want more and seek more. When you finally make $3,000 ever month, you want to make $5,000. When you get to that point, you aim for $10,000, then $20,000 and so on. You want to be skinny, then you want to be skinnier, then you want to put on some muscle and then you want to look better and better. You are promoted from a customer service representative to a team manager. Then you want to be a middle manager and climb even higher on the corporate leader. Or you decide to become the CEO or start your own company.
I have to say that all these goals are not necessarily bad. Wanting to grow, to become better, to develop your skills, to have a better car, a nicer home, a bigger wardrobe, a better relationship or a more lucrative job are all valid goals. The problem is that we always chase the next goal as the one that will finally make us feel happy forever. And that’s a trap because the next thing will make you as happy as the one before – or slightly happier for slightly longer.
Every new high feels great until it doesn’t any more. And when the effect wears off, we are in the exact same spot as before. This is the reason why this phenomenon is known as the hedonic treadmill. We keep running forward, but we are always in the same place – no matter how hard and for how long we keep on running.
Constantly chasing more and better things, event, experiences or people to increase our happiness is a race that we can never win.
Well, if that’s the case, what should we do? Should we just accept that nothing will ever make us truly and lastingly happy and stop chasing our dreams, working on our goals and aiming for anything? No! But now that we know this, we can stop fooling ourselves that when this happens, I’ll definitely be happy!
How to become happier – in spite of this
I have always believe that knowledge is power – in every field and life area. And the field of positive psychology is one of the most powerful ones. If you study how our brains work and what makes us happy and what doesn’t, everything in life becomes much clearer. You can live your life on a new level, with a more informed perspective. And when you understand how our human nature can sometimes work against us, you can also learn how to manage this and what to do to still experience happiness. Here are the things you can do to experience happiness, in spite of the happiness roller-coaster we all experience.
1. Stop chasing the next thing as the Holy Grail of happiness
I’ve already said it – having goals is great. If you want to buy a bigger home, get a new wardrobe or climb the corporate leader, do that. But chase these things because you want to have them in your life, not because you are hoping they will make you happy. The truth is that they won’t – not truly happy and not for long.
Whenever you set goals, set them because you want those things – regardless of how they make you feel and even if they do not add to your happiness at all.
Of course, it’s your life so you can do whatever you want. But chasing new things secretly hoping they will make you happy forever is a waste of time, energy and hope. And a shift in perspective can be the thing you need to prevent future despair and helplessness.
2. Be happier in the present
Our happiness levels are pretty steady.1 And the happiness level we will experience in the future is the same level we experience in the present.1 Therefore, if you want to be happier in the future, you need to learn how to be happier in the present – and keep that going.
One of the best ways to lastingly become happier is by practicing gratitude. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but you can become happier even if your life stays the same. Instead of dreaming of a bigger home, remind yourself that you already live in a great home and you are lucky to have this one.
Dreams make you focus on the things you do not have but wish to have in the future. Gratitude makes you focus on the things you wished to have in the past and you now have.
The magic of gratitude is that it allows you to feel much happier with the things, experiences and people you already have. And gratitude is a habit and attitude that anybody can practice anytime. How can you do that? Simply write down 3-5 things you are grateful for every day – in the morning or before going to bed. This simple habit will teach your mind to appreciate all that you already have, making you more grateful and more happier – in the present moment, without needing anything else.
3. Increase your happiness by balancing frequency and variety
The two things that can prevent habituation are frequency and variety. You can enjoy the same thing for longer if you only experience it sometimes or if you experience it differently.2
Going back to my experience with sushi. If I want to keep enjoying sushi for a long time, I can use either frequency or variety to my advantage. I can keep eating the same type of sushi if I only eat it once a month or even less frequently. Or I can have sushi every week and always choose different types of sushi.
To keep enjoying a certain experience you can either engage in it rarely or make it different every time.2
For example, only wear your amazing red dress at special occasions. When spending time with your partner, do different activities if you spend a lot of time together. If you love a certain dessert, don’t eat it too often. And you can probably apply this to every area of your life.
But keep in mind that you only need to change the frequency or the variety – not both at the same time.2
There are many things that make us happy – for a minute, for a week or for longer. But whatever they are, we get used to them more quickly than we would like. This does not mean that we have to give up hope and accept that nothing will make us happy.
What we can do is use the information we have to search for happiness in a smarter way. Accept that all experiences only make you happier for a while. Learn how to be happier in the present by practicing gratitude. And use frequency and variety to enjoy your favourite things in life more. Apply all these techniques and you can be happier for longer!
You can experience more happiness in your life, but this will not happen by accident. It happens by design!
The more I studied positive psychology, the more I understood that humans were not designed for happiness. That’s why people are not happy all the time. But I believe that if we want to, we can become happier than we currently are.
Do you want to learn more about how to design a life that is meaningful and happy? If you want to, “Happy by Choice” is for you. It’s a book that you can use as a blueprint to learn how to manage negativity and experience lasting happiness in your life.
- The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert