The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Hedonistic adaptation

Goat on a stepping stoolThe rallying cry among those of us who ascribe to voluntary simplicity is "Things don't make us happy." Why, then, are materialistic habits so hard to break?

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky both challenges and supports that rallying cry. She explains that money and possessions do make us happier...for a little while. If you by a brand new car or whatever else you've been craving, then your happiness levels receive an immediate boost. But that boost only lasts for a short period of time, at which point you tend to drop down to your normal happiness level.

Why? Because humans are extremely adaptable. Lose a leg, and within a couple of years the majority of amputees are just as happy as they were pre-surgery. Win the lottery, and that immediate elation is long gone by the end of twelve months. Even getting married --- which I've seen in other studies linked to long-term increases in health and happiness --- is only supposed to raise you above your own average happiness level for about two years.

Chicks on a rampThese examples are all types of hedonistic adaptation --- the human tendency to get used to both positive and negative changes in our lives. The good news is, you can counteract hedonistic adaptation, drawing out the positive effects of everything from that new handbag to that new spouse.

It takes conscious effort to extend the honeymoon period so you can keep savoring and appreciating the wonder of having fun-loving goats and cute, cuddly chicks on your farm, but the project is definitely worth the time. Similarly, if you've got some money to spend and want to go out and buy something new to make you happy, try selecting experiences instead of physical objects, and do so in small doses spread throughout the year rather than in one big chunk.

Or just be aware of your own tendency toward hedonistic adaptation and ask yourself --- "how long will that new wardrobe make me happy, and is that short boost in mood worth the expense?" The awareness just might be enough to help you achieve your goal of voluntary simplicity.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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As Machiavelli is more famous for observing, this applies to the negative too (and thus his prescription that the ruler should lay out bad things in as few as possible chunks, even if they're large and brutal), but that's sometimes harder to engineer in your own life. But not impossible, and it's worth keeping in mind that doing a whole bunch of unpleasant stuff all at once might make you more happy overall than doing one unpleasant thing every day.
Comment by irilyth Mon Aug 31 09:37:45 2015
Josh --- Great addendum! I hadn't thought of it that way, but it certainly makes sense. I guess the question is --- would concentrating all of the negatives in one day make me dread that day so much it counteracts getting it over with in one fell swoop?
Comment by anna Mon Aug 31 12:43:57 2015
Good question; probably the right answer is to spring all the negative stuff on yourself by surprise, since "spend a month dreading all the awful stuff I have to do a month from now" would count as a small amount of negative every day, rather than a big chunk of negative all at once. :^)
Comment by Josh Mon Aug 31 12:51:17 2015
There is some stuff that I never adapt to. Such as redoing my sunroom/mud room so it now has vinyl instead of carpet. I did this months ago but every day I look at the room and it makes me happy. Even more so when something happens in there like cleaning up after a sick dog. I guess actually most things that I carefully select or do that are fully my choice make me happy long-term. Every craft project that I am proud of (not mad that it is not perfect) makes me happy years later if I see someone using it. Particular pieces of jewelery or clothing that I like, make me happy everytime I wear them. Each time the boost is short lived (10 minutes) but the item still gives a boost for years if care was put into it at the beginning.
Comment by rebecca Tue Sep 1 15:52:32 2015

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