Life is mostly a process of figuring out what we want so we can be miserable about not having it, then fight to get it, before figuring out what else we want and being miserable about not having that. Rinse and repeat.
Hedonic adaptation is one of the great secrets of life. Except, it’s not a secret, we all know about it, we just pretend we don’t. We act like it’s not a thing because society would probably collapse if we didn’t.
It goes like this: our happiness tends to stick around a certain equilibrium level. We think that life changes — a job with more free time, a new romantic partner, a different haircut, the latest model of iPhone — will make us happier. So we strive to attain those things. When we do, we feel happier for a brief time, maybe even seconds or minutes, before we return to our baseline. The impact long-term is negligible. Winning the lottery and getting paralysed in a traffic accident will have about the same effect, in the long run, on your happiness.
Elation and ecstasy are unsustainable.
We always drop back to normal, with the exception of certain changes or if we’re starting at a low point. On the whole though, getting what we want doesn’t make us happy for long.
Paul Dolan writes in Happiness by Design:
‘One of the main lessons from happiness research is that the impacts of many life changes fade quite quickly. There is lots of adaptation — lots of getting used to change.’
There are a million blog posts out there written by bros in their late 20s or early 30s about how they made a ton of money working in finance or whatever, then realised they weren’t happy and give it all up to travel the world or start a startup teaching other people to give it all up and travel the world. And yet, the next generation and the next will continue to make the exact same mistake.
We all do this. We still, even though all the evidence says otherwise, think that getting what we want makes us happy. It’s not that it doesn’t make us happy at first. But things only really make us happy when we pay attention to them (which is why gratitude journaling, however cheesy, does make us happier.) As soon as the novelty wears off and our minds drift elsewhere, the joy fades. Paul Dolan writes:
‘…we are not especially good at knowing how different conditions will affect us when they drift in and out of our attention in the day to day experiences of life.
…It is very hard to predict how much something will matter when you are not paying attention to it. It is not surprising, then, that we are all prone to make mistakes about what will continue to grab our attention and what will not.
…Your future feelings will ebb and flow in ways that your current feelings do not appear to account for.’
The Venn diagram of the richest and most successful people I’ve known and the most miserable people I’ve known is a circle. It’s almost a farce. The Venn diagram of the most beautiful (i.e. conventionally attractive in Western culture) and the most insecure about their appearance people is a circle. Incidentally, the Venn diagram of the people I know who want the least and the happiest people I know is also a circle.
The alternative to the hedonic treadmill is almost too simple.
It sort of blew my mind the first time I realised that getting what you want and deciding to stop wanting something have the same outcome.
Either way, you don’t want it. Except in the latter case, you avoid all the wasted time and effort and money and energy.
It’s not easy to just stop wanting something, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I’ve trained myself to stop wanting many things because I realised wanting them wasn’t doing me any good: TV, social media, sugar (mostly), animal products, fizzy drinks, online games, alcohol, dating, owning more than the bare minimum, the news, owning a house or car, starting my own business, fancy possessions in general, social media followers and more. So I forget that many people would regard going without those things as a form of deprivation and it tickles me a little every time I see an article about someone quitting social media / TV / dating / going out drinking for 30 days because past a certain point, you do stop wanting certain things (which is not necessarily good.)
This is not to say that pursuing what we want is in any way wrong or a waste of time. It’s the process, the struggle, the journey that we truly enjoy. But sometimes when we want something that’s unattainable or when every moment is defined by wanting, it’s interesting to consider that there is another option. That you can stop wanting things that aren’t a survival need.
The point is: you can stop wanting it without getting it.