“It is not the man who has little, but the man who craves more, that is poor” – Seneca
Integrated into our everyday lives are ideas of how we can achieve happiness – buy the next best car, gain a huge promotion, find your ideal partner… We are rarely made to feel content in our own skin and current state. Sadly, we have become accustomed to this; we see it everywhere and many of us recognise how such messages, particularly those in the media, buy into our feelings of dissatisfaction and insecurity. Living in such an environment, how can we ever believe enough is enough?
Psychologists Brickman and Campbell first coined the term ‘hedonic adaptation’ in 1971. They suggest each person has a ‘set point’ of happiness which remains constant until we experience sudden highs or downfalls. For instance, when receiving an exam grade, one might initially feel intense happiness or disappointment that will eventually return to that set point. The same goes in the context of a romantic relationship: we fall in love ecstatically, and over time reach a state of equilibrium that makes us think, “is this it?” – a thought which characterises many break-ups.
Positive Psychology research has looked into the idea of a ‘hedonic treadmill’ – a permanent cycle of desire fuelled by dissatisfaction. Particularly in an environment where things like money and success are highly valued, once you’re on that treadmill, you don’t want to simply feel content. You want all your hard work to pay off with feelings of ecstasy and triumph; you sacrifice the present moment in the hope that it will bring you greater satisfaction in the future. In this way, many people obtain motivation as it serves a path for ambitions. However, it can lead to anxious or depressive states in cases where people devote themselves to unattainable goals or feel a lack of appreciation for what is already within their reach.
To help combat this negative cycle, a great body of recent research points to the value of mindfulness – focusing awareness on the present moment and all its encompassing sensations. In doing so, we can free ourselves from our attachment to the past and the future and find satisfaction in the present. Mindfulness has been found to significantly improve symptoms of mental disorders like anxiety, depression and ADHD. There are some excellent blog articles that write more in depth on mindfulness techniques, such as here, here and here.
On the other hand, research has shown that our happiness levels are not always determined by the environment we are in; they are 50% heritable in our genes. In addition to this, it is found that not everyone is hedonically neutral – we all have differing set points meaning we feel pleasure differently. For example, people with depression can experience anhedonia – a total inability to feel pleasure. Some research suggests that hedonic set points can be raised using new antidepressant compounds that are currently being investigated.
Psychological research has thrown light on how our desires can lead to dissatisfaction, and provides interventions that can be used to reframe negative mind-sets. If you have any experience with subjects I have mentioned or have any ideas or questions, please comment or send me a message.
Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. Adaptation-level theory, 287-305.
Eysenck, H. J., & Eysenck, M. W. (1994). Happiness: Facts and myths. Psychology Press.