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.
Are you happy? Would that be “affective happiness” or “evaluative happiness”?
Affective happiness has to do with day-to-day life and emotions. It can go up or down quickly depending on how your day is going. Evaluative happiness is your overall evaluation of your life. How happy are you with your place in society? Think of it as overall life satisfaction.
So what makes people happy? I’m glad you asked since I’ve been reading the World Happiness Report. (For my earlier article on Gross National Happiness, click here. For the full Report, click here.) The Report summarizes surveys and statistics from around the world and develops some surprising conclusions about what contributes to evaluative happiness. Here’s a look at a few of the variables.
Income — you might think that richer people are happier. To a degree, you’re right — but income works in strange ways. First, richer people are generally happier than poorer people but the quest for higher income can reduce happiness. Second, as countries grow richer, they don’t necessarily grow happier. GNP per capita has risen threefold in the U.S since 1960, yet we’re not happier. That’s partially because happiness is tied more to relative income rather than absolute income. If we all get richer at more or less the same rate, then our relative positions don’t change — nor does our happiness. Third, there seems to be an income limit. Up to a certain level, income seems to increase happiness. Beyond that level, more income does not yield more happiness. Ultimately, differences in income explain about 1% of the variance in evaluative happiness.
Marriage – “Marriage is one of the unambiguous, universally positive and statistically significant correlates of life satisfaction.” But what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does marriage make people happy or do happy people get married? It seems to be a bit of both. People who are happier when they’re young are more likely to get married. But marriage then gives a happiness boost — over and above the “normal” rate of happiness.
Age — as you get older, your body starts to break down physically and mentally. So you should be less happy, right? Not quite. There’s a big U-turn when you relate age to happiness. Other things being equal, we’re happier when we’re young and then happiness declines until we reach our 40s. Then things brighten up again and our life satisfaction rises. Could it be the wisdom of maturity? Maybe. Or maybe we can just afford better wine.
Gender — “In most advanced countries women report higher satisfaction and happiness than men.” This is less true in poorer countries but seems to be universally true in richer, more advanced countries.
Education — the evidence is mixed. More education doesn’t correlate directly with greater happiness. But it does contribute indirectly in that more education generally results in higher income which can create greater happiness.
Children — “Surprisingly, the presence of children in the household appears not to be associated with higher life satisfaction.”
Television — “Many studies have shown that watching TV is associated with lower happiness, other things equal. An early study exploited the fact that one Canadian town gained access to TV some years later than other towns. The result was a relative fall in social life and increased aggression.” Additionally, TV watchers see many rich people on the tube and tend to underestimate their own relative income. As we saw earlier, your perception of your income relative to others is what counts in happiness.
There’s much more to it — including mental health, freedom, corruption, equality, and community — but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. Does that make you happy?