Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lessons on being happy from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Before Peace Corps, I was in Florida and working and kind of a little miserable at times. Worse, I was so angry at myself for being miserable. “You are American!” I’d say to myself. “You have enough food! Air conditioning. A good job. Friends. Family. What is your deal?”

Part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps was for a good “Alright young lady, let’s see if you can’t appreciate your life when you get thrown into poverty.” Obviously, that didn’t happen. But I did happen to read this book. It talks about something called Adaptation. Basically this is the idea that anything externally that happens to you, you get used to, for better or worse. Win the lottery? You’re initially happy, but you get used to it. Lose your hand in a fireworks accident? You’re initially miserable, but you get a nice hook and you get used to it. In a year’s time, people in both these situations reported being just as happy as they were beforehand, no more, no less.

We’re the richest people in the world. We know we don’t appreciate it and we hate ourselves for it. But it’s not our fault. It’s nature. Whew.

We enjoy our pleasures while they’re novel, our shiny new things. But the pleasure wears off, which still surprises us every time. This is called hedonic adaptation. (hedonic: of, characterizing, or pertaining to pleasure)

“As society’s affluence grows, consumption shifts increasingly to expensive, durable goods, with the result that disappointments with the consumption increases. Faced with this inevitable disappointment, what do people do? Some simply give up the chase and stop valuing pleasure derived from things. Most are driven instead to pursue novelty, to seek out new commodities and experiences whose pleasure potential has not been dissipated by repeated exposure. In time, these new commodities also will lose their intensity, but people still get caught up in the chase, a process that psychologists ... labeled the hedonic treadmill. No matter how fast you run on this kind of machine, you still don’t get anywhere.”

The hedonic treadmill. What a great name for how we live our lives.

Schwartz goes on to talk about another thing called the satisfaction treadmill. Let’s say that you get you’re life going good to where you are feel good about your rank in society, the comfort level in your home, the way you look in your nice clothes. It will feel good climbing the ladder at first, but you get used to the rung. Soon you want to move up to the higher rank, the bigger house, the more expensive clothes. You work your ass off at a job you’re starting to hate, thinking these things will make you happy, you get into debt buying newer, shinier things, (and more chained to that desk), but the thrill eludes you every time and fades farther into the distance. We expect to get to some level where adaptation won’t take place, but it always will.

That’s good. Now I know I don’t have to be rich, I’ll just get used to it. What I really need to work on is knowing that I'll be just as happy if I do have a lot of success with my work. (We all have our trophy we strive more. Mine is more success than riches. Although come to think of it, both would be nice.) I can accept where I am and accept that I’m pychologically incapable of really appreciating it. Yet I’ll appreciate it in practice. I won't sell out thinking it will make me happy. I'll remember to give back and not grab for more. I'll remind myself that I'm rich and should be content.

We slam another nail into our happiness's coffin with social comparison. It used to be that people lived in tiny villages and compared themselves with 100 or so people. Now we live in a world where we are fed with info about the lives of the most rich and famous of 6 billion people. We invite this information into our lives via gossip magazines and the E! chanel.

Advertisers tell us: “If you use this product you will be happy” and provide us with photographic evidence of people using their product and looking very happy. We buy the thing and we’re no more happier. Dammit. Of course none of think that we really fall for this, but why would companies spend billions on advertising if it didn't really work?

The Paradox of Choice suggests we limit our exposure to unrealistic social comparison. Stop reading women’s magazines. Stop watching so much tv. Dip your feet into reality and see how real people live.

By exposing yourself to too much advertising, too many gossip magazines, too many hours of shows like “The 100 Wealthiest Celebrities under 25,” you’re conciously stepping on that hedonic treadmill, choosing to remain forever unsatisfied with your own life.


And because I love that you find the truth where science and spirituality intersect, an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching:

If you look to others for fulfillment,

you will never truly be fulfilled.

If your happiness depends on money,

you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;

rejoice in the way things are.

When you realize there is nothing lacking,

the whole world belongs to you.


Ched said...

I think the bit about Social Comparison is dead on.

Thanks for this summary.

Pamela said...

LOVE it!