A welcome Break
Last month I was fortunate enough to take a holiday. I had been really looking forward to the break and especially the feeling of relaxation and happiness that comes with time away from every day stressors such as remembering passwords to log into my online banking and waiting for the wheel to stop spinning on my laptop when I am short of time and trying to open a document (it does seem that many of my stressors are technology related)!
Anyhow my holiday delivered what I needed-I certainly felt very relaxed and re-energised by the end of the 10 days. However, I also noticed something that in retrospect I have been aware of at numerous other times in my life… and that is how quickly I habituate to the environment I am in and accompanying this how the feelings of contentment, relaxation and happiness that were acute at first start to fade and I return back to near baseline even though I am still in the same beautiful holiday environment. As I was flying home from holiday, I read a mindfulness blog that explained this very phenomenon… something psychologists called hedonic adaptation and I wanted to share this with you.
Happiness can be short-lived
As human beings we have had to adapt to changing circumstances very quickly including sensory or physiological changes. My left ear often blocks when I am flying and when my hearing eventually returns the feeling of relief is tremendous and I vow to myself to remain grateful for ease of hearing. This gratitude probably lasts all of 24 hours, if that, before I have got used to my ‘normal’ hearing and forgotten what it was like to be without this. So, the same thing happens with really significant changes such as buying a new house, a new car, a new anything actually. We get a temporary shot of happiness, but it quickly becomes normal and the happiness disappears. And this is why the adage ‘money can’t buy happiness’ is actually scientifically true.
Hedonic adaptation is very helpful when circumstances change, and we find ourselves in less favourable situations because adapting to these new scenarios means we have a better chance of dealing with them. However, when circumstances change for the better hedonic adaptation still occurs and means we typically struggle to remain appreciative of our new ‘improved’ situation. This phenomenon means we need to think carefully about how we seek happiness. Many of us are drawn to seek happiness through consistently striving to improve our circumstances, for example buying a new car, striving for more wealth and success, career recognition or relocating. However, hedonic adaptation determines that the happiness stemming from this will likely be very short lived. So, if we want to increase our happiness, we need for the most part to stop thinking about changing our external circumstances in the misguided belief that once we just get X or Y then we will feel good. Changing X or Y may make a small difference but your time may be better spent doing things we scientifically know have been linked to happiness such as cultivating a mindfulness practice, developing compassion for both yourself and others, developing and expressing gratitude, building connected relationships, spending time in nature, cuddling your pet and building resilience for when life takes a down turn.
Creating long-term happiness
So, whilst I still love to travel and spend time with my husband away from technology and the demands of life, I also know not to base my sense of happiness on trying to orchestrate my outer life differently e.g. go on more holidays! Instead I will enjoy the benefits that come with taking time out and continue to build into my life daily practices that I know scientifically and intuitively can really deliver on the happiness front!
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.