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In their now classic paper on the psychology of happiness, researchers Brickman and Campbell suggested that all people labor on a “hedonic tread-mill.” As they obtain more possessions and achieve higher goals, their expectations also rise. Soon they habituate to their new level of affluence or success, and it no longer makes them happy. Likewise, people may be terribly unhappy when they first encounter loss and misfortune, but they soon adapt to those as well, and they no longer make them unhappy. Therefore, according to Brickman and Campbell, people are destined to be “neutral” on the happiness scale, no matter what happens.
Interesting theory, but it was only partially correct. Studies show conclusively that people do adapt to most circumstances pretty quickly. For example, people adapt within a few months to: job promotions, job loss, a diagnosis of cancer, being told the cancer is in remission, imprisonment, major illness, physical impairment, marriage and widowhood, and a sudden increase in affluence. However, they don’t return to a point of “neutrality,” they return to the set point which they have maintained pretty consistently throughout their lives.
For example, if you ask people to rate how happy they are on a scale from 1 to 10, with one being the bottom, and 10 being the top, most people, most of the time, rate themselves a 5.5. We think this is because most people feel pretty good when nothing really bad is happening. However, there are people whose set point is usually around 7, and then there are those whose set point may be around 4.
What makes the difference in this set point? The answer to this question is complex, but certainly genes play a large part. There seems to be a predisposition, probably inherited, to be unhappy. People with this temperament tend to react with more intense emotion to negative events and less intensely to positive events. Small negative events are exaggerated and positive events are overlooked.
Along with this is a tendency to set continually higher expectations for one’s happiness. For example, the mother who says, “If only we had a nicer home, I’d be happy,” gets the nicer home and declares, “If only my husband wouldn’t work so much, I’d be happy.” When he gets some time off, she laments, “Now, if only my son got into a good college, I’d be happy…” People with a lower set point for happiness seem to be continually looking over the next hill for some external circumstance which may bring them the elusive state of happiness.
For example, did you ever wish for a higher level of success in your work, only to obtain it and find it carried with it greater demands, longer hours, more respon-sibility, more stress and more pressure? As another example, many people in unre-warding marriages think “If only I could get a divorce all my problems would be solved,” yet find that after the divorce, they are faced with a new set of equally challenging problems such as financial downsizing, single parenting, child support payments to make, loneliness, being away from the children for days or weeks at a time, conflicts over visitation with the children, the adjustment to remarriage, step parenting, etc.
On the other hand, most people’s lives have had times when they had relatively little externally, yet were reasonably happy. College students live in poverty, yet most people recall college life as an enjoyable time. Middle aged couples often look back on their first few years of marriage, when they had very little money, as a happy time. Many people who grew up poor say they were happy because everyone else around them was poor as well, so they felt they were not lacking anything. The key ingredient here seems to be expectations again. They had low expectations, and so they were content.
- Are you on a “hedonic treadmill?” When in your life have you said to yourself, “If only I had…” or “If only I could…” only to obtain that goal and still be no happier months later? List two examples:
- List a time in your life when you had “less” of something yet were satisfied. What was different about that time? List two examples:
- What have you learned from this exercise? How can you apply this to your life today?
Brickman, P. & Campbell, D. T. Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.). 1971. Adaptation-level-theory (pp. 287-305). New York: Academic Press.