The Powers and Perils of Adaptation: What You Can and Can’t Do About Your Happiness
Suppose you had the option of either winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. Which one would you pick? Most people would choose the lottery, and that’s understandable, millions of dollars is better than not walking for the rest of your life.
Let’s make the question a little harder: Which scenario do you think would make you happier?
In 1978, three psychologists set out to try to find the answer. After tracking lottery winners and paraplegics, they found that one year after their respected life changing events both reported the same level of happiness. How is this possible?
Humans are remarkable adaptors. We do a good job of getting over break ups, lay-offs, and divorces even though they are initially painful. We also do a good job of adapting to environments. A study done by David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman showed that people in California are no more happy than people in the mid-west and vice versa. Unfortunately, our ability to adapt spoils our ability to appreciate new technology. I am sure many of you know from experience that it only takes a few weeks for the latest gadgets – ipods, computers, cars – to become boring. And replacing the old with the new only perpetuates the problem – what some call “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill.”
That we successfully adapt to emotional adversity and unfortunately adapt to the novelty of material possessions helps explain the paradox of the lottery winners and paraplegics. One group adapted to an emotional problem while the other adapted to material possessions, and although they took opposite routes, both reverted back to their default states. Examples of emotional and material adaptation are everywhere: As a freshmen in college you miss home, as a senior, you dread home; a recent breakup causes you to think that you will never find anyone again, a few months later you discover the new love of your life; the new video game is endless fun, the same game is never played again after a few weeks; the latest Lady Gaga song is your new favorite, the same song is old a few days later. You get the point.
There is a simple evolutionary explanation for all of this. Those who adapted to emotional challenges quickly were favored over those who dwelled on the past. And our tendency to adapt to materials, which has turned out to be bad for buyers but fantastic for sellers, is a byproduct of this.
This suggests that in terms of personal happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction, you have less control than you think. There is truth to this. As Jonathan Haidt explains, “in the long run, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness set point – your brain’s default level of happiness.”
But this is not to say you have no control. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves significantly improves our well-being. A study done by Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan shows that those who give more help and support to their spouses, friends, and relatives live longer and those who give less. Moreover, Martin Seligman, the director of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, explains that writing a letter of gratitude to someone who had a big impact on your life and delivering it in person causes a significant increase in happiness in the long-term.
Findings like these go on and on. The important takeaway is that humans are highly adaptable, and that this works for us emotionally but against us materially. However, it never gets old to give to others, help others, and be thankful to others.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36 (8), 917-927 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Schkade, D., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction Psychological Science, 9 (5), 340-346 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00066
Dunn, E., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness Science, 319 (5870), 1687-1688 DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952
Brown, S., Nesse, R., Vinokur, A., & Smith, D. (2003). Providing Social Support May Be More Beneficial Than Receiving It: Results From a Prospective Study of Mortality Psychological Science, 14 (4), 320-327 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.14461