I remember one time I went to buy a present for my husband, and while doing that I came across this nice dress which really caught my attention; I liked the style and I had never seen anything like it. I loved that dress. Given that: it was a unique finding, I needed a dress like that one (obviously), it fitted very well and of course it was on sale, I had all the excuses –  sorry, “reasons” – to buy it.

I remember feeling super excited about my purchase, I went home and I tried the dress again with the right shoes and a jacket, and I felt great. The excitement was there for a couple of days, especially when I saw the dress in the closet, but after a while I completely forgot about it, to the point that I didn’t even wear the dress for long time.

The example is quite superfluous, but I think we can all relate to that experience. New stuff often give us a boost of happiness, but later that nice feeling disappears quite quickly leaving us disappointed. Today I want to write about this topic.

Hedonic adaptation

The situation I described above is called Hedonic adaptation, this theory states that we quickly adapt to situations/stuff and tend to return to a base level of happiness. Wikipedia defines it as:

“It 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”

There was a famous study done which examined lottery winners and people victim of major accidents that resulted in difficult outcomes like paralysis. They observed that regardless of the strong positive and negative feelings they felt after the events, some months later they reverted to the same level of happiness they had before. More in the video below.

So no matter how euphoric we may feel about an event or material possession, that feeling won’t stay for long.

It is never enough

The theory described above is also called “Hedonic treadmill” and that terms makes a lot of sense to me. If I was super excited because I bought that dress or sofa or car and after a while, that excitement went away, of course I want to return to that great feeling I had when I bought those stuff, so there I go to make another purchase and continue the never ending cycle.

In this article GenerallyThinking explains it quite well:

“The deal is simple; you get the money, the clothes, the big house, and the nice car, and then bang! Well done champ, you made it, you’ll be happy forever. But then the new car is released, the new clothing line comes out, and you want a house with a pool and an ocean view. Your expectations rise, what was once a luxury becomes a necessity, and you find yourself wanting more again, like a hamster on a treadmill”

So in other words, it is never enough and that’s consumerism. We buy and buy, work and work so that we keep buying…it doesn’t end. It is the way societies work these days.

The reason I am writing about this today is because as we keep buying and buying seeking that boost of happiness we all desire, we keep using our planet natural resources, generating massive amount of waste and polluting the planet in the process.

“We have to stop thinking that unlimited economic growth on a planet of finite natural resources is a sustainable model” – Dr Jane Goodall

What can we do?

First of all it is awareness, understanding that material possessions can never make us feel happy beyond that initial excitement. I am not saying that money doesn’t help, I am not saying that we should not aim to improve our lives and do better. I am saying that maybe we should seek happiness somewhere else, find other ways to find that excitement we all want in our lives.

Some options to explore:

  • Get out of the routine, bring new experiences: one thing that we can all agree is novelty and variety usually brings us happiness; exploring new places, discover cities, going to an art  gallery or museum, learn a new skill, practice a hobby or sport, meet new people… so many options to get out of the routine. This weekend instead of going to a shopping centre to spend our money in more stuff we don’t even need, let’s think about what exciting places or events we can experience.
  • Help others: studies have proven that generosity can also improve our happiness. It is part of being human, even when often we forget it. Helping others improve relationships, make us feel better, give us a sense of purpose and many other benefits. Learn more in this article.
  • Reconnect with nature and appreciate its wonders. Spending time in nature is one of the best things we can do to improve our wellbeing and happiness level. Recently I wrote a post about this topic, learn more here.
  • Make gratitude a daily practice: embracing gratitude everyday is a great way to remember all the good things we already have in our lives; reasons to be happy this very right moment. Gratitude can make us more optimists and improve our happiness. There are heaps of studies online to support that. You can learn more in this Harvard article.
  • Get social: we are social creatures; regardless if we are introverted or extroverted, when we are surrounded by real meaningful and honest relationships we feel great. Real connections can bring us more joy and happiness than a new pair of shoes! Organise a dinner at home, play a board game together, go to the movies, catch up with friends regularly. Let’s give it a priority.
  • Self-reflection: we are always busy: working, studying, dealing with responsibilities at home, self-reflection is probably the last thing you want to think about. But the truth is the better we know ourselves and understand what we like or dislike in our lives, what we really enjoy or not, what our values and beliefs are, the better the chances to improve our happiness level doing the things that matter to us.

When we gain happiness in other meaningful ways, we don’t need more stuff to make us feel good.

And hey, this doesn’t mean I have it all figure it out, I struggle like everyone else putting in practice these concepts. Over the years I have been learning a lot about these topics and that journey has helped me to be more mindful of my habits.

Something that I have improved is precisely that “need” to buy more stuff as a way to deal with things that I don’t like in my life. Going to a shopping centre to browse and see what I find that can bring me more joy, overcoming the “I work hard, I deserve it” mantra.

Sometimes I fall short, I fail in my quest, but I know I am heading in a direction that I feel brings me wellbeing and reduces my impact on our beautiful planet.

There is a popular quote that says “Shopping is cheaper than therapy” and it summarises quite well today’s subject…let’s not fall into that trap!

This topic is really a big one, and honestly this is just an introduction. I would love to expand it more because I feel it is very important. Let me know in the comments below: Did you know about Hedonic Adaptation? What are you thoughts about it?

Thanks for reading.