Your Brain Is Wired to Suck the Joy Out of Good News
When a good thing comes along, humans have a frustrating tendency to overplay the effect it will have over the long term. This, we tell ourselves, this will be what finally makes us happier: getting married, buying a house, going on a dream vacation, landing a coveted promotion.
And for a little while, it probably will. But nothing lasts forever, happiness included. Eventually, everyone goes back to baseline. One study found that the initial excitement of marriage tends to wear off after two years; another suggests that the honeymoon period in a new job lasts a year, on average. Even smaller pleasures — a slice of cake, a new hobby, a day off work, a different hairstyle — may feel more fleeting than we’d like. And once the magic wears off, we’re left to pursue the next thing for the same result. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “hedonic adaptation,” or, sometimes, the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s an apt image for what’s going on in our brains: always running toward sustained happiness, never quite reaching it, forever chasing the reward that remains fixed in the distance.
Researchers believe hedonic adaptation is a protective mechanism, preventing external stimuli from having too great an impact on our internal state — kind of like the happiness equivalent of sweating to keep cool. Some have even called it a “psychological immune system,” since adaptation is how we bounce back from whatever life throws at us. But it’s often detrimental instead, sometimes to the point of making us question the choices we’ve made in the pursuit of happiness: Maybe I married the wrong person. Perhaps this isn’t the right career for me. I’ll try a different flavor next time. And self-doubt aside, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down the treadmill at those moments of joy and linger in them a little longer?
Research suggests that it’s possible — at least, up to a point. In 2005, psychologists Ken Sheldon, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and David Schkade authored a paper breaking down the factors that influence our happiness. Around 50 percent is based on fixed traits like personality and genetics, they wrote, while another 10 percent is influenced by circumstances, leaving 40 percent within our…