Our ability to adapt to things in life is quite startling. Some experts have suggested that we live on what they term a pleasure treadmill, meaning that we continually adapt to improving circumstances to the point that we always return to a point of relative neutrality. In other words, when we repeatedly encounter the same pleasure-producing event, we experience less and less pleasure in it.
One of the most frequently cited studies of adaptation is an investigation reported some years ago by a bunch of psychologists at Northwestern University in Chicago. The researchers interviewed 22 winners of the Illinois State Lottery, which is larger in size to the national Lottery here in Ireland. Each of these lottery winners had won between a million and 100,000 dollars. The winners were asked to rate their past, present, and future happiness, as well as the pleasure they took in mundane everyday activities like talking to a friend, reading a newspaper, having a coffee break, etc. The researchers also interviewed a group of 58 individuals who had not won the lottery but lived in the same neighbourhood as the winners.
The results showed that the lottery winners were scarcely happier than the comparison group in terms of their present and future happiness. On top of that, lottery winners found less pleasure in everyday activities than did non-winners.
These researchers also interviewed 29 individuals who in the preceding year had suffered an accident that left one of their limbs permanently paralysed. What they found was that though their level of life-satisfaction was slightly lower than lottery winners their expected future happiness and pleasure in everyday activities were slightly higher than that of the lottery winners.
These quite extraordinary results show that people have a startling ability to adapt to life events – both good ones and bad ones. The effect of positive and negative events is never as much as you anticipate.
Why do we adapt? Wouldn’t it be nice if pleasure producing situations or positive life events always had the same sustained effect, if honeymoons could last forever, if winning the lotto guaranteed happiness, and if we only had to purchase one version of the Grand Turismo Play Station game.
It appears that by adapting to life situations, both good and bad, it protects us from being overwhelmed by life events. Our species has survived because if positive or negative events distracted us too much we would not be able to get on with the business of living and surviving. In addition, if we did not adapt to things we would lose the ability to be aware of changes in our world, which is essential to survival.
For example, if we were so overwhelmed by our distress we would not be able to take care of our off-spring – or if we were so delirious about our success we would fail to notice dangers and threats in life. So, at a very basic human level, our psychological and physical systems learn to adapt to good and bad things in life and we have a tendency to return to a base level of relative neutrality.
This of course does not alter our ability to experience a given joy or pleasure like having a warm cup of tea on a cold day, taking a swim, or watching a sunset. We keep coming back for more once a sufficient time has passed. The rule of thumb, which you know anyway, is that spreading our pleasures over time increases the satisfaction that each produces.
So the age-old adage that far away hills are always greener is shown top be true from psychological research. What far away hills do you tend to focus on in a belief that is you got what you want you would be much happier?
Don’t let yourself forget the adaptation effect and consider the wisdom in the other old saying that happiness is not doing what you like but actually liking what you do.
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Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.