If I Just Won the Lottery, Life Would Be So Much Better

Hedonic Adaptation

Posted Jul 26, 2017

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How many times have you heard someone say that? Maybe you’ve said it yourself. You’ve thought of all the ways winning the jackpot will improve your life forever: No more stress about money. No more concerns about having too little. Rest and relaxation forever! In this blog, we’ll explore the reality associated with winning the lottery and how holding on to such hope is actually hazardous to your happiness.

Research on Happiness  

Academics have extensively studied lottery winners, and their findings may surprise you. One study that has been repeated multiple times starts by asking lottery winners to gauge their happiness before they won, right after they won, and a month, six months, and several years afterwards.

In the long term, most respondents are back to the level of happiness they reported prior to hitting the jackpot.

If winning the lottery is one end of the happiness scale, let’s explore the opposite end. Researchers have also studied people who have become paralyzed. Men and women who lost the ability to walk were asked to gauge their happiness before they became paralyzed, after, and several months later. Guess what?

In the long term, most respondents were back to the level of happiness they reported prior to paralysis.

Set Point for Happiness

In both instances, what researchers discovered is that we humans have a set point for happiness. Think of this as an internal thermostat set at the same temperature. We all have a different setting. Some of us have our thermostat set to happy. Some are set to depressed. Meanwhile, others are somewhere in between.  

When we experience a major event, say winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, our thermostat may temporarily swing up or down. But over time, it returns to its usual setting. For the most part, research has demonstrated that our set point for happiness will stay the same throughout our lives. Another term to describe the set point for happiness is hedonic adaptation.

The hedonic part of the term is related to hedonism, which is the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. An example of hedonism is if you had a sweet tooth, you’d eat candy all day without concern about the consequences associated with excessive sugar consumption.

I’m sure you can think of a time you indulged in a food that tasted delicious at first. The first bite was amazing. The second was pretty good. But by the time you’ve stuffed yourself with it, you may find yourself repulsed by what was so scrumptious at the beginning.

So as much as we can indulge in something and it may provide us a temporary boost in pleasure, we will inevitably return to our set point for happiness. We hedonically adapt to our circumstances.

An Example of Hedonic Adaptation

Imagine Tom has saved for years and finally has enough to buy a car. He is thrilled with the purchase at first. But after a while, he gets used to it. His car didn’t make him any happier over the long term because he reverted back to his set point of happiness.

Tom then sets his eyes on an even better car. He has a new job that pays more, so he can afford to upgrade his automobile. But once he has it, the thrill of the purchase subsides and he returns to his set point of happiness.

Tom then switches careers and experiences a major salary jump, so he decides to buy an exotic sports car. He is elated owning something he thought unimaginable just a few years ago. As he drives down the busy street, people stare and snap photos of his latest purchase. But, just as took place two cars before, he reverts to his set point of happiness. Until, that is, he experiences the temporary thrill of his next automobile purchase.

You may think Tom is silly for endlessly seeking the next big ticket item. But I’m sure you can identify a time in your life when you envisioned having something in your life, whether it be a job, a relationship, a house, or the latest electronic device, and you thought about how happy you’d be once you had it.

What Tom’s example illustrates, and what scientific study has backed up, is whatever we acquire, we eventually revert back to our set point of happiness. In other words, we experience hedonistic adaptation. Our happiness does not change.

Enjoy the Journey, Not Just the Destination

So if hedonic adaptation means our happiness will remain the same no matter what we accomplish, does this mean that accomplishment and goal setting are pointless?

I’m a strong believer in goals. In my private practice, I regularly help my clients set and accomplish personal and professional goals. But what the set point for happiness teaches us is that getting that new job, buying that new house, and embarking on that new relationship may not make us happier. Thus rather than focus only on the end goal, we should work toward enjoying ourselves every step along the way. That way, even if we don’t make it as far as we initially envisioned, we know we enjoyed the process.

Also, by understanding the role of hedonic adaptation in our lives, we can use this to determine whether setting a particular goal is worth the time and energy required. Perhaps we’ll buy a less expensive car or a smaller home if it means a lower monthly payment. After all, the stress associated with being saddled with a big monthly bill may not be worth it given that the elation of the purchase will be temporary.

By using the set point of happiness as our guide, we realize the importance of enjoying every moment of our journey toward goal accomplishment, rather than delaying gratification. We realize that reaching a goal will most likely not make us any happier and thus we re-evaluate our priorities. Lastly, we use hedonic adaptation as a guide to determine how we want to spend our time, money, and energy.

If you happiness is something you seek on a regular basis, rather than once in a while, then use the set point of happiness to guide the decisions that impact your life everyday.