A couple of years ago, I wrote an article that explains why your dog is happier than you are.
The general idea is rather simple. Everything that happens in a dog’s life is new and stimulating. Each car ride brings a new adventure. For us humans, new things or new experiences soon become the new normal. Rather than being stimulating and refreshing, new things quickly become part of a new routine. We’re soon back in the same old rut. It’s known as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill.
I’ve remarked on this to many dog-owning friends and they all agree that it’s real. Their general explanation is that dogs live in the moment and we don’t.
But why would that be? Why would dogs live in the eternal present while we humans continue to flit back and forth between past, present, and future? To live in the present, we humans need special training in mindfulness and meditation. Why isn’t it just our natural state of being? It seems to work pretty well for dogs.
Then I considered what it takes to keep the human brain healthy. Most of the sources I’ve consulted suggest that seeking novelty is a key ingredient of brain health. Seeking out novel experiences, learning new skills, visiting new countries all stimulate us and contribute to brain health. Even reading a political columnist whom you disagree with can apparently contribute to a healthy brain. So can doing more things with your non-dominant hand.
Why would these activities contribute to brain health? Novelty stimulates new connections in the brain. We all have bazillions of brain cells. That’s all well and good but it’s the richness and density of the network that connects those cells that seems to influence brain health. Doing new things stimulates growth. Doing the same old things can reinforce existing connections but is less likely to create new ones.
So how do we encourage humans to seek novelty? Simple: make old things boring. Perhaps we experience the hedonic treadmill because we need novelty to promote brain health. With simpler brains, dogs don’t need a hedonic treadmill. They can live in the moment and stay perfectly healthy. We can’t.
Think about that the next time you’re lusting after a new car or a new house or a new toy. The acquisition might just bust your budget. But it might also make your brain healthier. At least for a while.
Story 1: When I come home, I open the front door and our dachshund, Bella, comes racing through the house, throws herself at my feet, rolls over for a belly rub, and wags her tail vigorously. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been outside for a few minutes or away on a business trip for a few days. Bella’s reaction is always the same – she’s thrilled to see me.
Story 2: Suellen and I enjoy art and we’re friends with several artists, so we have a lot of artsy things – photographs, etchings, a few paintings, and sculptures. Some of it is pretty good stuff. Even the not-so-good stuff has lots of sentimental value. I notice, however, that I don’t notice the art so much. I can walk through the house without registering that it’s filled with art. It’s almost like wallpaper.
Why is it that Bella gets excited just by hearing the door creak open while I can blithely ignore some very stimulating art? I think it’s because of hedonic adaptation. I have it. Bella doesn’t.
When we acquire a new piece of art, I pay a lot of attention to it. I may study it, talk about it, maybe even brag about it. It’s new and different and it stimulates me. After a few months, however, it’s just part of the new normal. I still like the piece but it doesn’t stimulate me. I’ve adapted to its presence. That’s hedonic adaptation (or the hedonic treadmill as it’s sometime called).
Bella, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to grow accustomed to the same old thing. Everything seems new to her all the time. The door creaks and off she goes to a new adventure. At the very least, she’ll get a belly rub. She might even get a treat. Oh, it’s so exciting!
There’s a subtler difference as well. Art is a thing, something to be owned. An opening door is an experience: who knows what will happen? There’s a bundle of evidence that experiences generate more happiness than things. If you want to improve your general level of happiness (and perhaps get off the hedonic treadmill for a while), invest in doing things rather than buying things.
I’ve written about happiness before (click here and here and here). There’s a rising tide of research on Gross National Happiness and a suggestion that we over-emphasize Gross National Product in public policy. For instance, American wealth has tripled in the past half century but we haven’t gotten any happier. Relative wealth seems more important than absolute wealth.
What about at the personal level? The best advice seems to be to invest in small experiences. Why small rather than big? Because you can do them more often. Frequency seems to be more important than size. There’s a novelty factor that seems to intrigue and stimulate us. Bottom line: do more things, buy fewer things. Oh, and get a dog.