A Sunday New York Times discussing the happiness benefits associated with simple living in its article titled “But Will It Make You Happy?” The main point of the article is that people can easily adapt to living with less, without suffering many negative consequences, but that when we are constantly pursuing more, we have to get even more to stay happy:
Another reason that scholars contend that experiences provide a bigger pop than things is that they can’t be absorbed in one gulp — it takes more time to adapt to them and engage with them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on that shiny flat-screen TV.
“We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,” says Professor Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.
Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.
“We stop getting pleasure from it,” she says.
And then, of course, we buy new things.
The phrase “hedonic adaptation” was made popular by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein in chapter 16 of Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (the article begins on page 302). Much of their research focuses on prison inmates becoming comfortable in their confined prison cells — a process that surprisingly occurs quickly — but it also looks at the growth side, when people acquire new and larger things:
Although hedonic adaptation confers enormous benefits by reducing the subjective effects of adverse conditions, it has associated costs as well. The most obvious cost of hedonic adaption is that it occurs for goods as well as bads, creating what Brickman and Campbell (1971) have called the “hedonic treadmill” — the tendency for transitory satisfactions to eventually give way to indifference or even dissatisfaction. Scitovsky (1976) comments that “the attainment of a goal seems, when the moment of triumph is over, almost like a let-down” (62). Adaption to pleasurable experiences may also be responsible for destructive addictions, which are due in part to the decreasing pleasure from a given level of a good or activity and in part to the displeasure (craving) when consumption of the good or activity ceases (see, for example, Koob et al. 1989; Loewenstein 1996).
In short, if you are constantly in pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses and conspicuously buying, you’re more likely to become addicted to shopping and feel less pleasure and happiness each time you buy. Conversely, reducing your consumption, living more simply, and focusing instead on experiences will ultimately — as this research shows — make you happier.
What also exists in this research is an explanation for why it is difficult to see your clutter the more you have. You adapt to your cluttered surroundings and become immune to its presence. (Hoarders, for example, are often in denial that they’re hoarders because they don’t see the mess.) In the text, researchers Frederick and Loewenstein liken it to how your nose becomes numb to foul odors the longer you stay in a stinky environment.
Thanks to reader Tim for bringing the New York Times article to our attention.