An interesting thing happens when you give up something you previously engaged with and enjoyed – be that a possession, habit, or convenience. Given a little time, it becomes clear whether you really enjoyed it, or whether it was something that you felt you enjoyed, but may have in fact been down to a kind of repetitive conditioning – called hedonic adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation is the idea that we return to the same level of happiness once we get used to a new level of material comfort.
It’s a reasonable assumption to make that once our basic needs are met, we each have an innate level of happiness that is inherent to us as individuals. Environmental factors such as stress, sleep, finances, and day to day life then take their toll or add to the happiness tally.
For example, when I had a car I’m not sure I ever imagined life without one. It was a level of material convenience that seemed a lot to be without. So I didn’t think about it much. Now that I don’t have one, I appreciate other things that happen in the car’s place. I’ve have become a convert to cycling and love the feeling of all the bike parts working well in motion.
Or the value of having the time to read a book on bus.
Or, admittedly, the convenience of getting a lift somewhere.
Getting rid of a car and other things means I have moved down the material convenience and hedonic scales. The interesting thing is that by doing so, either voluntarily or involuntarily, it’s possible to appreciate things in a different way. Generally simpler, less expensive, less impactful things. Life on a certain plane becomes simpler and I don’t feel any less happy.
So, if buying more stuff beyond a certain level doesn’t really make you any happier, does deliberately simplifying things make you happier? I think so – and it is part of a bigger question.
It’s a little hard to fully get this one into clear perspective, especially when raised in a consumerist society. I have rarely wanted for much, and most things I have wanted have more or less been within reach – once I work to buy it. Cravings for stuff is very real, and so is the endorphin release when it is bought.
Never Mind the Joneses
Constantly striving to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is more than likely a recipe for unhappiness as the money flies out the door and all those purchases ultimately do little for longer term happiness levels. It’s so easy to become used to accumulating stuff, working to pay for it, working to store it, spending time cleaning and maintaining it. Ironically, it ends up owning you.
There are things I can’t see myself being without. My modest but ever growing collection of books for example. I can’t get enough of them – I get around to reading most of them. I’ll read them all some day. A by-candlelight insurance against boredom if a massive solar storm strikes – like this one almost did in 2012.
Anyway, I suppose what I am ultimately digging at here is the idea of value and where it is found.
The problem with the consumerist way of life, at a societal level, is it has us hurtling towards a painful reckoning with the very real limits on what the pale blue dot can provide for us.
Finding sustainable ways to play out this great unfolding human drama is urgently necessary, and can be better for us as individuals and our home – the two are not mutually exclusive. Relying on creaking institutions, ten-a-penny politicians who do not want change, or the structural solutions of a culture whose values fundamentally create the problems is not going to get us very far.
The narrative that is played across most media and woven into the fabric of those cultural values, particularly in the West, is that we need to buy to be happy. Once engaged with, that narrative actually weakens our individual ability to generate our own happiness, through value we create for ourselves. Of course this is what those on the receiving end of the cash want.
Continual consumption of ideas, products, and media that is not related to our own direct experience fills our heads with thought patterns that are not ours, and eats away at our own store of imagination. You know, the same stuff we had when we were kids. It’s tuned differently as adults, but its capacity to generate happiness remains intact.
When speaking about his addiction to drugs, Russell Brand said that his problem was not with drugs per se, but in dealing with reality itself. Consumerism is a bit like that; it provides a distraction from dealing with reality itself. Finding value in reality itself.
The best things in life aren’t things – Art Buchwald
To the extent that hedonic adaptation levels out the happiness of beyond-baseline materialism, that same materialism then reduces our free time, distracts us from what is important, eats up our imagination, and weakens our very ability to be happy – in and of ourselves. Of course there is a contented, subjective middle ground for most people and it’s worth really investigating where that is.
As I outlined in the reasons I started writing here, simpler living can effect a change in attitude towards consumption, and from there unexpected things start happening. It doesn’t have mean a massive change in standard of living either.
Hedonic adaptation is a kind of awareness tool and awareness is an important step towards seeing things as they really are.