A significant factor in happiness is the hedonic treadmill , or hedonic adaptation .
People are adaptable. We quickly adjust to a new life circumstance—for better or worse—and consider it normal. Although this helps us when our situation worsens, it means that when circumstances improve, we soon become hardened to new comforts or privileges. Scoring air-conditioning, a bigger house, or a fancy title gives us only a brief boost in happiness before we start to take it for granted. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.” That’s the hedonic treadmill.
One cure for this “hedonic treadmill” is deprivation. Deny yourself something, and your pleasure in it will be re-activated when the denial stops.
I’m being reminded of this truth the tough way, through the painful deprivation of some small things I’ve taken for granted for years and never realized how much they contributed to my happiness: my contact lenses.
For the past month, I’ve had a particularly stubborn case of viral conjunctivitis, and although my eyes don’t hurt or itch (for which I am very grateful), they’re bloodshot and tear constantly. My doctor told me I’d recover more quickly if I didn’t wear my lenses.
Boy, I didn’t realize how much my contact lenses added to my base level of daily happiness. First, my glasses frames dig into my head behind my ears, and that hurts and gives me a headache. Second, my glasses are about 15 years old, and I look goofy in them. (Having bloodshot, watery eyes isn’t improving my looks, either.) Third and most important, I just can’t see as well with my glasses. I’m legally blind— extremely near-sighted—and glasses just don’t work as well as contact lenses. (An eye doctor once told me, “Your vision is so corrected that you’ll see everything slightly smaller than it actually is,” a puzzling statement that sounds like the opening of a Steve Wright routine.) And somehow, not seeing clearly makes me feel like I’m not thinking clearly.
Ah, contacts! How I took them for granted. How happy I’ll be to wear them again. So often I complained to myself about the chore of putting them in and taking them out, of visiting the drugstore to buy the two kinds of solution I need (this is tough for me, as an underbuyer ), of having to be careful not to rip or lose them. I won’t be complaining again for a long time.
Deprivation is one of the most effective, although unenjoyable, cures for the hedonic treadmill.
* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com . (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.