“Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?” Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
Hedonic adaptation and feeling dissatisfied are two major tendencies that prevent us from being too happy. Do they also prevent us from being too much in love? Are we doomed to fail in love, just as we are generally fated not to be very happy?
Feeling dissatisfied and hedonic adaptation
“No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” Martha Graham
Among the various factors determining our happiness are two human tendencies that are of particular relevance in considering the questions in the title: not being satisfied, by, for example, desiring things that we don't like once we get them, and hedonic adaptation, whereby we adapt to a stable, average level of happiness. Both tendencies prevent us from being highly satisfied or very happy.
The human tendency to feel (at least somewhat) dissatisfied is of great evolutionary value since it forces us to continually seek to improve our situation. William Irvine (2006) argues that the process of evolution dictates that we feel dissatisfied with any stable circumstance, whatever it may be. The urge for more and better is of significant value: we keep trying to improve our current situation by not missing out on better options. This tendency is at the basis of the remarkable progress of science and other human achievements. People suffering from senility can be continuously satisfied, but this is because they have lost contact with reality. A measure of dissatisfaction is part of being in touch with a reality that is seldom as good as we want it to be. Overcoming those obstacles with which we are not satisfied makes our life more meaningful. Being dissatisfied does not allow us to rest on our laurels and to become smug. The dissatisfaction in romantic love is expressed in romantic compromises, in which people accept the given romantic relationship with some level of dissatisfaction that stems from their yearning for a better option.
Hedonic adaptation, which involves a reduction in the affective intensity of favorable and unfavorable circumstances and adapting to a stable, average level of happiness, prevents us from being very happy or very miserable. People become accustomed to a positive or negative experience, so that the emotional intensity of that experience is attenuated over time. Without such a decrease, we would be overloaded with intense emotions that would prevent us from distinguishing between greater and lesser significant events. This adaptation acts as a barrier that stops us from being overwhelmed by the intensity that comes with both extreme happiness and misery. However, since hedonic adaptation is faster and more likely to be “complete” in response to positive rather than negative experiences, it is more a barrier to intense happiness than to abject misery.
Such adaptation expresses the need for stability, whereas dissatisfaction expresses the need for change. Both are valuable. It is advantageous to focus our attention and resources on changes rather than on stationary stimuli. Changes remind us that our situation is unstable, and awareness of this is important for survival. Stability, which denotes the quality of something that is not easily changed, is also of great evolutionary value, as it prevents deterioration and complete chaos. The value of a change presupposes the presence of some stability that continues to exist after the impact of the given change. Once we have become accustomed to the change, mental activity decreases as there is no sense in wasting resources on something to which we have already adapted. The combination of change and stability enables us to function in a more optimal manner.
The two tendencies are related. Hedonic adaptation causes dissatisfaction since we already are in the better place and our yearning for it expresses some dissatisfaction about our present situation—even if we are aware of the adaptation’s value. On the other hand, being dissatisfied limits the extent of the adaptation, thereby making it more valuable. The main function of the two tendencies is to prevent extreme emotional highs and lows from lasting too long and destabilizing our responsive system.
Are we doomed not to be happy?
“It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have.” B. Earl Puckett, an advertiser
“Joni Mitchell seems destined to remain in a state of permanent dissatisfaction—always knowing what she would like to do, always more depressed when it's done.” Jon Landau
The above two tendencies indicate the evolutionary necessity of not being too happy. Does this mean that we cannot remain too happy for too long?
The two tendencies seem to be opposite: in hedonic adaptation we maintain our habits and stability, yet in being dissatisfied we become restless in our search for a better alternative. However, when taking into account that hedonic adaptation is more a barrier to intense happiness than to abject misery, the two tendencies act in the same direction: both prevent us from being too satisfied and too happy.
In her excellent analysis of hedonic adaptation, Sonja Lyubomirsky (2011; see also 2013) rejects the claim that such adaptation prevents us from being happy. Lyubomirsky and colleagues identify the most important determinants of chronic happiness level as (1) the genetically determined “set point” (baseline) or temperament (accounting for about 50% of the observed variance in well-being), (2) life circumstances (accounting for about 10%), and (3) intentional activity (accounting for the remaining 40%). Accordingly, they argue that “the assumption of a fixed, genetically determined set point leaves much ‘room’ for improvement, as well as for resilience. Specifically, up to 40% of the individual differences in happiness appear to be determined by what people do… with intentional efforts, people can both preserve happiness and become sustainably happier” (Lyubomirsky, 2011).
Lyubomirsky further claims that people vary in their rates of hedonic adaptation in both the positive and the negative domains. Consequently, “the secret to achieving increased and sustainable well-being lies in strategies that prevent, slow down, or impede the positive adaptation process.” Since happiness can and does change over time, we are not completely stuck in our current level of happiness, but it not easy for us to become even happier. Thus, in a 1984–2000 longitudinal study, 76% of the respondents remained unchanged in their well-being, and 24% reported significant shifts—though most of these were for the worse, not for the better (Fujita & Diener, 2005). It seems that trying to increase happiness is a feasible, though difficult task, and the probability of success is not high.
Are we doomed not to be intensely in love?
Do the above basic tendencies impede not merely our ability to remain very happy, but also our ability to remain intensely in love?
Love is a major factor in our happiness. Marital quality, which is an expression of a romantic value, is among the most important social factors linked to happiness, as well as to mental and physical health. Thus, 57% of people who say they are “very happy” in their marriage are also very happy in general, whereas only 10% of people who are “pretty happy” in their marriage are very happy in general (Myers, 2000).
In light of the close connection between happiness and love, it is not implausible to assume similar determinants in both cases. Adopting Lyubomirsky’s account of the most important determinants of chronic happiness, I assume similar determinants for long-term profound love: (1) the given determined “set point” (baseline) of the compatibility and attraction between the two (accounting for about 50% of the variance of long-term profound love), (2) life circumstances (accounting for about 10%), and (3) intentional activity (accounting for the remaining 40%). It should be emphasized that for my purpose, the precise numbers are of less significance than the fact that both profound happiness and profound love are influenced by a given set point, by intentional activity, and by life circumstances—probably in that order.
The set point in love refers to the broad sense of attraction, expressed in the wish of the couple to be with each other. This attraction is based upon an initial structural similarity between the two, which can be further developed into meaningful togetherness. Life circumstances in both happiness and love may enhance or decrease the profundity of happiness and love, but their impact is smaller than the other two determents. In happiness, as in love, the two lovers' intentional activities carry considerable weight and can significantly enhance the quality of their connection and hence the likelihood of an enduring profound love. This can explain the surprisingly high percentage of people in the USA who said that they are very intensely (or in my terms, very profoundly) in love with their partners after many years: 47% of respondents rated the intensity of their love as 7 (on a scale of 1 to 7) after 10 years of being together; 40% rated it as 7 after 10-20 years together; and 37% rated it as 7 after 20-30 years of partnership. Some 44% of respondents stated that after 10 years together they are intensely in love (6 out of 7) and in love (5 out of 7) (O’Leary et al., 2012). Though some decline over time in marital quality and happiness is noticeable, the percentages of those who have maintained their level of love are quite high.
Indeed, Lyubomirsky (2011) indicates that there is some evidence that relative to aspirations for material goods, people’s desire for a happy marriage and children do not decline when they successfully attain them. Hedonic adaptation will be slower when "the person who acts within the marriage to improve and cherish it may cause that boost to last significantly longer.” Lyubomirsky further argues that numerous studies have shown that people who strive to realize important goals are happier, especially when such goals are intrinsic, realistic, culturally valued, self-determined and harmonious.
Being profoundly in love
“My God, these folks don't know how to love - that's why they love so easily.” David Herbert Lawrence
The above considerations indicate that feelings of dissatisfaction and the process of hedonic adaptation prevent us from remaining too long in the extreme states of intense love (and intense happiness). I argue that by doing so, they actually promote the possibility of long-term profound love (and happiness).
Romantic intensity is like a snapshot of a given moment, expressing the momentary measure of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity embodies occurrences of intense love over long periods of time along with meaningful intrinsic experiences with the partner, helping each individual and their togetherness to develop and flourish. Romantic intensity is of short duration and is clearly subject to hedonic adaptation and dissatisfaction. Thus, sexual desire and intense romantic love decrease drastically over time, and a familiar partner evokes less intense sexual desire than a novel partner does. Dissatisfaction is frequently associated with sexual interaction; thus, a feeling of sadness often prevails after sexual intercourse. If romantic intensity is too great, it can prevent the growth of profound love, the development of which requires investment of time and effort (Ben-Ze’ev, 2014).
At the center of profound love are each partner's intrinsic activities and their togetherness. Intrinsic activities, in which the value of the activity is in the activity itself and not in an external goal, are less susceptible to hedonic adaptation and feelings of dissatisfaction. Our intrinsically valuable activities are usually compatible with our personality and capacities, and hence we are more likely to be satisfied with them. Moreover, we do not become adapted to intrinsic activities, such as intellectual thinking, dancing, or listening to music, to the point that it then becomes a worthless activity for us. In this type of activity, we have a tendency to be satisfied and fulfilled as long as the activity is meaningful for us. As is the case in profound love, in intrinsic activities the change that keeps our interest and excitement high is not a superficial external stimulus, but rather a continuous intrinsic development (Ben-Ze'ev, 2015). If you are profoundly satisfied with the intrinsic connection with your partner and the intrinsic flourishing of each of you, there is no need for external change to fan the flames of love. Romantic profundity is created through an ongoing process whose value typically increases with familiarity and use. In accordance with this view, an empirical study found that the relative centrality of extrinsic goals is negatively related to well-being, and positively related to distress, whereas the opposite pattern pertained for intrinsic goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1996).
“We can tolerate a little spring rain, in order to enjoy the sunshine that follows.” Unknown
Hedonic adaptation and feelings of dissatisfaction are valuable in enabling us to function normally by preventing us from remaining too long in extreme, intense situations; in this manner, they facilitate the development of profound love (and happiness). Feeling moderately dissatisfied can complement the moderate intensity level by keeping people’s motivation to improve their situation and current relationship. The two tendencies are complementary in their attempt to prevent extreme, unstable situations whose enjoyable value is merely short term. Contrary to the initial impression that these tendencies prevent us from being in love (and being happy), they ensure that we are not doomed to fail in achieving profound love.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2014). Ain't Love Nothing But Sex Misspelled?” In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská (Eds.), Love and its Objects. London: Palgrave, 25-40.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2015). Should we fan the romantic flame? Psychology Today, 26/2/15, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-name-love/201502/should-we-f...
Fujita, F. & Diener, E. ( 2005 ). Life satisfaction set point: Stability and change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 158-164
Irvine, W. B. (2006). On desire: Why we want what we want. New York: Oxford University.
Kasser, T. & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280 –287.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Hedonic adaptation to positive and negative experiences. In S. Folkman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping. New York: Oxford University, 200-224.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness. New York: Penguin
Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, 56–67.
O'Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P. Aron, A., Huddy, L. Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.
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