One of the more annoying quirks of human psychology has a name: hedonic adaptation. It’s a term psychologists use to describe the way you get used to the things that once made you happy. Getting a long-sought-after promotion at work, for example, initially makes you feel more satisfied with your life — but after a year or so, the feeling fades. You’re about as happy as you were before you got the new job.
This phenomenon is well-studied, and a classic of the genre is one particular study published in 1978, which found that, after some time had passed, lottery winners were not that much happier than they were before they’d won. Even more telling, they were not that much happier than another group included in that study: people who had recently suffered some terrible accident, and as a result had become paraplegic or quadriplegic. “Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off,” the authors of that paper wrote. “If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.”
So if this is truly a central part of human nature, psychologist Frank T. McAndrew recently argued at the Conversation — wouldn’t it make sense to stop fighting it? After all, you get used to things because you are supposed to get used to things. It’s for your own good. “These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving,” McAndrew said. “If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant — or at least, mundane — present.”
It’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. Happiness isn’t meant to last, a statement that sounds incredibly sad, but doesn’t have to be. As McAndrew phrases it, “Recognizing that happiness exists — and that it’s a delightful visitor that never overstays its welcome — may help us appreciate it more when it arrives.”