As I was watching Michael Phelps receive his 14th gold medal – what a week! – this is what I was thinking: “How could anything in this 23-year old swimmer’s life ever top this?” And: “After he comes down from the high, will he ultimately end up less happy than the rest of us mere mortals?”
This may be a downer question, but it’s not a glib one. Research suggests that an extremely positive event (or “peak experience”) can skew our distribution of life events in such a way that makes everything that follows it pale by comparison. A friend of mine had such a tremendously positive experience once (I won’t say what it was but it didn’t involve drugs) that for many weeks afterwards, everything else that he usually really enjoyed (eating sushi, playing frisbee with friends, watching Monday night football) just didn’t seem so great anymore. He eventually got over it and reverted back to his old self, but what if he had been labeled the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? Could one derive the same pleasure in the nightly news or eating crackers or taking a walk around the neighborhood after that?
In my own research, I have recently become intrigued with the process of how people react to and adapt to positive experiences. The sad conclusion, according to every study that I’ve read, is that human beings adapt to all things positive! We move into a spanking mansion, we win accolades and awards, we meet a handsome stranger, we get wrinkle-smoothing plastic surgery, and it feels terrific for a while. A happiness boost for sure. And then, over time – sometimes slowly, sometimes very rapidly – we return to our original level of well-being.
But the problem is that really, really positive experiences raise the bar for all subsequent experiences. They set a new standard of comparison. After you dine at the French Laundry, every subsequent meal is not as good. After you win the lottery, according to a University of Michigan study, little ordinary, mundane good things in your life, like having lunch with a friend or receiving a gift, don’t carry the same cachet. After you sleep with the person of your dreams…you get the idea.
But all is not hopeless for Michael. My research shows that people can actively and effortfully try to combat the effects of adaptation to life’s joys and triumphs. We can set and pursue intrinsic and meaningful new goals (as I’m sure he’ll now do). We can open ourselves up to novel opportunities and surprises in our lives. We can try to savor and appreciate what we have (polish those medals, relish our good health) rather than lament what is lost.
Peak experiences are great, but it’s the accumulation of mildly positive events that produce lasting happiness.