Can We Really Change How Happy We Are—for Good?None By Acacia Parks, PhD.
Happify is all about teaching people how to change their happiness levels. Despite controversy over the past several decades about whether or not it’s even possible to get happier in the long run, recent research has reached the overwhelming conclusion that yes, it is. Here's why.
Hedonic Adaptation: Why We Get Used to the Good Stuff (and the Bad)
The majority of research around changing our happiness levels revolves around a concept called hedonic adaptation. It sounds like a mouthful, but you'll get the idea right away: Hedonic adaptation is when something good or bad happens to you and, with the passage of time, you get used to it. For example, imagine your first big breakup. At the time, it might have seemed like the world was going to end, but today, you’ve moved on, and chances are it doesn’t affect you much anymore. You can thank hedonic adaptation for that!
Unfortunately, hedonic adaptation also applies to positive events, like moving into a new home that you love. The beautiful view out of your bedroom window, the pool you were so thrilled about, or whatever else made the experience of moving exciting eventually becomes your everyday reality. Research finds that hedonic adaptation happens with the majority of good and bad things that happen to us in our daily lives.
Why? Adaptation is a system that exists in the body to help maintain balance. Anything intense that happens to you—good or bad, your body doesn’t know the difference—puts you into “stress mode,” and when your body is stressed, it puts off important basic functions (like digesting and healing) in favor of functions that would help you escape mortal danger. People who are chronically stressed have all sorts of problems because their bodies don't have time to take care of themselves.
Similarly, if you walked around all day long, ecstatic about your new car, your body would never get a break. Therefore, when it comes to everyday stress, your body’s number one priority is to get you back to “neutral” to keep your stress levels down. It looks at an event and, after it’s excited you a few times, says “Oh yeah, I know what that is, I don’t need to get all worked up about it.”
How to Make Happiness Last
I’ve argued that the body inevitably goes back to “normal,” so how, then, is it possible to lastingly increase your own happiness? Recent research has come up with several important habits that can help to make happiness last.
#1 Aim for calm and contentment.
While it's impossible (and from a physical standpoint, actually undesirable) for you to maintain the level of excitement you feel when a positive event first happens, you can transform your initial “activated” feelings (like joy and enthusiasm) into more “deactivated” emotions (like calm and contentment) that are easier and healthier to sustain.
#2 Mix it up, constantly.
When you find a happiness-boosting technique that works for you, try and change up how you do it each time. Let’s say, for example, that savoring works really well for you. Sadly, you can only savor the exact same piece of chocolate cake so many times before you get bored of it, so you'd want to find new and different things to savor, in different locations, with different people.
The same is true for gratitude. If you meditate on your gratitude for the same person every day, you'll get weary of it, and the exercise will stop working. When you do gratitude activities, be sure to rotate the things or people you think about so the activity continues to work as best as possible. It’s also a good idea to do more than one type of activity, rather than focusing on just one. (Happify, with its diversity of activities for different life situations, helps you do just that!) A recent study found that happiness app users who used several different activities benefited more than people who spent the same amount of time, but only on one activity.
#3 Focus your attention on people and experiences, not physical possessions.
A classic study found that while there are many different roads to happiness, every single one of those roads involves other people. This makes sense when you think about what we just talked about in #2—mixing it up. Hedonic adaptation happens when you do something the same way every time. A fancy new watch, for example, just sits on your wrist—there’s no way to make it any more or less exciting than it is.
People, on the other hand, are different every time you interact with them, so it’s much harder to adapt to them, especially if you change up the things you do with them. While it's certainly possible to get in a rut with someone—for example, going to the same restaurant and ordering the same thing, week after week—there are also countless possibilities when it comes to new ways to experience a person. So, if you're going to pick one place to focus your efforts, make it on people!
Acacia Parks, Ph.D is a scientific advisor for Happify and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hiram College, where she teaches classes on the science of happiness. Her research program focuses on the efficacy of positive interventions, and the psychological and behavioral characteristics of individuals who use them. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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