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This is what most people assume their level of happiness will look like:
Notice how the level of happiness is one and the same as personal successes?
And *this* is what most people’s level of happiness actually looks like:
Again, notice that now, that the happiness level isn’t closely tied to the successes.
In general, most of us assume that more will make us happier. However, fortunately or unfortunately we have an adaptive trait called the ‘Hedonistic Treadmill‘.
The Hedonic Treadmill, aka Hedonic Adaptation is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
Forever Stuck at Seven
One study showed that almost all people rate their level of happiness (on a scale of 1-10) as a constant 7, regardless of their demographics, education, wealth, and personal accomplishments. Even when a major success occurs (marriage, promotion, dream house, pregnancy, etc) the happiness would rise to a 9 or a 10, but drop down to a 7 after a 2-3 months. Even when tragedy struck (home burned down, family member died, lost a job, etc) and they rated their happiness as a sad 3 or 4- within a few months they were back to being a boring 7.
So perhaps our individual bucket lists (though quite fun, I have one too!) aren’t going to be the secret to happiness. Maybe a reverse bucket list could be the solution. Instead of looking ahead to new tasks and accomplishments, we should look at what successes we’ve already won. I’ll explain more on this later.
Now, going back to the Hedonic Treadmill. Because of this adaptation, we as humans, improve. We didn’t stop when we discovered the wonderful concepts of wheels, fire and bacon. We continued onward, and we drastically improved our quality of life as a species. Homeless people in America live better than most kings and queens in the 16th Century. This adaptation is what places humans above other creatures. House cats aren’t concerned about their weight, unfortunate homeless cats, or becoming more intelligent. Because of this, we are the intellectually superior specie.
As an individual person though, this adaptation can be exhausting (much like a treadmill). It is makes us typically much unhappier than other creatures. Decent food, a warm nap, and the attention from one person is typically not enough for most of us. What about striving for greater income, a higher education, and self improvement? You may ask. Well, it really doesn’t help as much as you may assume.
Increasing your Income:
Those with an annual income of $86,000., the top 30% of wealthy people in America, are only about 20% ‘happier’ than those with an annual income of $14,000., the bottom 10% of wealthy people in America (source). I believe we can reason why with this single statement: The poor are more resilient, whilst the rich are more ambitious. So really, money doesn’t make that much of a difference in levels of happiness.
Raising your Level of Education:
What about a higher education? Well, statistically speaking, those with an education level equal or lesser to a high school degree, are about 47% *more* likely to be happy, than those with a degree equal to or greater than a 2 year college degree (source). Personally, I believe this is because those with higher educations, feel that they now have a greater responsibility to ‘do big’, because they now have a newer, greater spectrum of opportunities. I suppose education is also not the answer to seeking happiness.
What about self improvement? Well, it depends on which type.
Physical self improvement is not as helpful as you’d assume. The most ‘beautiful’ people are on average, only 7% happier than even the ‘ugliest’ of people (source). I believe this is less about your actual physical appearance, and more about the appearances of those you spend time with. If you are attractive, you’re more likely to spend time with more attractive people (be it friends, partners or both). This will in turn, make you more self conscious, and you’ll desire more beauty for yourself. You’ll also begin to take what attractiveness your friends and partners have for granted. So perhaps, changing your hair color, getting that surgery, or losing your last five pounds isn’t worth the hassle if happiness is your only goal.
What about emotional self improvement then?
Bingo! Now we’ve come full circle- this is where we go back to talking about our reverse bucket list. Gratuity (and appreciating how far you’ve come in life) gives you one of the greatest returns for your investment of time and effort. Studies have shown that by taking five minutes daily to write in a gratitude journal, you can increase your levels of happiness by 20% (source). That’s better than doubling your income and losing fifty pounds! So why is gratitude such a winner? It’s because gratitude extends beyond just our own bodies (while also improving our bodies).
How is gratitude the answer?
• Gracious people are better liked and more appreciated by others. Its really difficult to dislike someone who is beautiful, smart, and rich when she is also equally giving, charming, and thankful. Being well liked also means that people will want to spend time with you, which will in turn, increase your self esteem, and your overall mental health.
• Gracious people are more resilient. By focusing on the positive, and appreciating the good in their lives, gracious people can bounce back from difficult times more fluently [READ: How To Become Mentally Stronger]. Not only this, but by practicing gratitude, you increase your optimism, which makes your memories seem happier. That’s a Win-Win-Win if you ask me!
• Gracious people are humble, and that is an awesome trait to hold. Being thankful for your circumstances, your friends, family, and God is not you being ‘weak’ or ‘dependent’- accepting and admitting to other’s kindnesses and charities takes real personal strength.
So obviously, gratitude can increase your happiness. But how else can you improve how happy you are? I regret to report to you, there isn’t a ‘cure all’. You need to look into your life and see what you think needs to change.
• Should you quit the rat race of trying to keep up with the Jones’s? Is being content with your income and belongings the answer? Maybe Minimalism is for you. Learn more about it here.
• Should you appreciate where you’re at in life? Sometimes, just because an aspect *can* be improved, does not mean that it *should* be improved. Is it time for you to quit stressing about your weight, your quirky nose, or your lack of education? Perhaps gratitude is the perfect solution for you. Learn more about it here.
• Would you be better off to reduce your choices? Cavemen didn’t have “midlife” or “quarterlife” crisis. They also didn’t have the opportunities that we do. Should I save the homeless? Build an influential business? Go off the grid? Perhaps you should just bloom where you’re planted. If you’ve already began the process of becoming a teacher so that you can help young people- don’t drop that to travel the world and build water purification systems because it’ll make you ‘happier’. Because it probably won’t. Unless you just absolutely want to change the world in a different way, don’t change your career or question your life purpose.
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What accomplishments are on your Reverse Bucket List? Can you be content with your life, as it already is? What are some other strategies to turn off the Hedonic Treadmill? As always, thank you for reading!