- The pursuit of happiness is a natural human phenomena; however, we often use ineffective means to reach this goal.
- One of the most common methods, the pursuit of material wealth and comfort, is one such ineffective method, due to a human adaptive trait known as “hedonic adaptation”.
The pursuit of happiness has been part of the human experience for millennia. But only recently has science begun to shed light on the path (and limits) to sustainable happiness. Positive psychology is the branch of psychology focused on positive human well-being, or what pioneer Martin Seligman describes as “flourishing”. In this post, we’ll look at some of the myths and pitfalls of the pursuit of happiness, while our next post will explore a few proven ways to increase happiness in our lives.
The happiness question often centers on achievement and its rewards, and this can be especially true for businesspeople working in competitive environments and rewarded for hard work. However, the acquisition of material wealth is often a less effective path to happiness than we might think. Consider income: In Canada, some of the happiest places are in Newfoundland, while some of the least happy in Ontario, despite that fact that the average income in Ontario is about $10,000 higher than in Newfoundland. This is just one example of the lack of correlation between income and happiness. In fact, research shows that, once people have enough money for relative security and comfort, earning power and its corollaries (luxury items, larger homes, etc.) don’t change happiness much at all (the distinction is important – it can’t be emphasized enough that people who are not able to earn enough for stability and comfort are compromised in many ways, including happiness).
So it turns out the old saying is true: money (once our necessities are taken care of) really can’t buy happiness. But why? Blame a phenomena called ‘hedonic adaptation’. As humans, our ability to adapt is one of our great strengths – but one of its side effects is that we quickly adapt to an improvement in our material circumstances, too.
In othe words, if you go from having no home to having a home, the difference in happiness is significant. But if you move from a comfortable home to a bigger or more expensive home, after a brief happiness bump, your mind quickly adapts to having more space or luxury, and soon you are about as happy as you were before the upgrade, but not happier. This can trigger a frustrating and ineffective cycle of chasing that initial bump in happiness through more earning or acquisition.
While the hedonic treadmill is ingrained in the human mind, there are two practices we can undertake to counteract it:
- Gratitude: It’s such common advice these days as to almost be cliché, but science confirms that gratitude makes us happier. Taking some time a few times a week to make a note of the things we are grateful for is a proven method to keep us from being carried away by the hedonic adaptation trap.
- Savouring: A form of mindfulness, the practice of savouring is one in which we take the time to fully experience and enjoy what we are doing and where we are. Be fully present to the comfort you experience as you drive your car. Give your entire attention to enjoying your meal. Put your phone down and really listen to your kids, your spouse or your best friend when they talk. Whatever it is, we increase our enjoyment by taking the time to fully engage with our experience, rather than thinking about what’s coming next, or being distracted by our email.
So, while the pursuit of happiness comes naturally to us, some of the ways we instinctively try to pursue it are less effective – and in fact can work against our goal. In our next post, we’ll look at proven ways to boost happiness.