How do we go about increasing our happiness? We have all striven for something we believed would make us happy – a new house, a relationship, or a flexible job – only to find that, 3 months later, our happiness fell right back to where it started. At this point, we may have enthusiastically chosen a new goal to strive for, or we may have realized what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation”: that we quickly adapt to any favourable (or unfavourable) change in our circumstances, and that our happiness remains essentially constant.
The evidence for hedonic adaptation is well established. Lottery winners report an initial high followed by an eventual return to their former levels of happiness. Similarly, recent paralysis victims report the same happiness levels as before their misfortune, aside from an initial low. This is also true for less dramatic changes in our life: marriage, income, and the region in which we live, all have very little impact on our long-term happiness. So, if none of these things will help our happiness, is there anything that can help us be happier?
The key to sustainable happiness is to change our activities rather than our circumstances. A change in circumstances, such as a new car, relationship, or promotion, can quickly be taken for granted. It becomes a background fact that does little to alter our happiness. On the other hand, changes in our activities or behaviour do have the potential to permanently increase our happiness. Examples of activity/behavioural changes include beginning to exercise daily, practising smiling at people, learning to meditate, or starting each day by writing a list of things to be thankful for. Hedonic adaptation applies only to changes in circumstance, and not to changes in activity.
Therefore, when we seek to increase our happiness, we should look to change our activities and not our circumstances. Of course, sometimes a change in circumstance may lead to a change in our activities. For example, if our new car just means driving to work instead of going by bus, then we will quickly adapt. On the other hand, if our new car means that we can now drive to the mountains and take up hiking, and if we do this regularly, then substantial increases in our happiness could result. Similarly, a relationship for which we are consistently thankful and into which we pour all our energy and love is likely to yield great benefits. However, if we begin to take our relationship for granted, we will be back to where we started.
Permanent increases in happiness are possible, but they require a sustained and intelligent application of effort. We must develop useful habits and ways of thinking, a good one being the practise of gratitude (see Gratitude: Focus on what is right with life). The traditional goals of more money, a nicer house, and a faster car, will not help us. We must change our activities, our behaviours, our thinking…not merely our circumstances.