Why Being Successful Will Not Make You Happier — and Understanding What Will
The navy-blue night diluted with the dusty, polluted-air of the outskirts of Bangalore city closed in on me as a I stared at the passing traffic — an infinity of humanity stretching blurry red and yellow lights across the horizon. My diaphragm lurching, slow waves of anxiety washed over me as I finally began to acknowledge that an important chapter of my life had just closed — and there was nothing to follow.
Hours earlier, I had been suspended from boarding-school in the last week of my senior year. Jarring from this abrupt end to my school-life I felt that I had nowhere to go. Having procrastinated the whole year, I had applied to only one college — one I was about to interview with at 5:30 am the next morning — just five hours from now. Right now, I just hoped that the interview would go well.
Of course, the interview went terribly.
Yet as more time passed in that summer, I, lounging at home, would sometimes fantasize about getting into that one college — Yale-NUS. It was an ambitious fantasy; Yale-NUS was a sub-five-percent-acceptance college that I had no hope of making, especially given my rushed applications. Still, this made my aspirations even more compelling. If only it all worked out! Oh how the incredible facilities, financial aid and travel opportunities would change my life!
Surprisingly, it worked out.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change my life.
We’re Better at Wanting Stuff Than Enjoying It
Want is a powerful driver of human behavior. After all, a lot of the things that we do today are in anticipation of creating a better future for ourselves. In reality however, the fulfillment of even our most aching wants often leaves us — after brief excitement — no happier than before. The thrill of that highly-anticipated new romance, the delight of that new job and the novelty of that dreamt-of vacation are so compelling until they actually happen — and then, they fade so quickly into the background. Why is the reality of success so underwhelming in comparison to the aspiration of it?
The answer is hedonic adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation is the tendency for the human mind to return to a normal level of well-being despite positive or negative life changes in one’s life. For example, your faster new car might be quite delightful to drive the first time around, but soon, rushing from one errand to the next, you don’t even notice it. Hedonic adaptation also works similarly for negative life changes. A sudden loss of money might feel terrible the first day, but over time, it becomes more bearable.
Why Hedonic Adaptation Hurts
The tendency for hedonic adaptation is a life-saver when it comes to dealing with negative events in your life. Time is a great healer that allows even our biggest losses to become bearable over time. However, when it comes to the positive changes in our lives, our tendency for hedonic adaptation becomes a curse.
After all, just hours after I heard about my acceptance to Yale-NUS, new anxieties had taken the place of old ones. Would financial aid come through? Was this the best place for me? Could I have done better? Within a month of joining Yale-NUS, I was, on average, lonelier, more stressed and less confident than I’d been in the two years before.
It is terrifying to admit that the things we aspire for today are merely silhouettes in the sand — expectations that never materialize. After all, we often live our lives gunning for that new-job, that fitter body, that higher GPA or that enormous salary fully believing that this new thing will make everything better; forever. Yet, the evidence of our own lives warns of exactly the opposite: no single event will make us, in the long-term, more fulfilled than we are. There is always more money, more recognition and less body-fat to achieve and none of it feels like enough when you have it. It is no coincidence that the richest, most powerful and most glamorous among us are also the most insecure, stressed and unhappy.
Yet, I do not talk about hedonic adaptation to share a story of gloom — I simply wonder whether we are usually chasing the wrong things in life. But, if achieving everything we want will not make us happier, then what will?
What Hedonic Adaptation Teaches Us About Being More Fulfilled
It helps to start by understanding why hedonic adaptations occurs. It happens for two reasons. First, with time, the positive returns from a good change diminish as novelty reduces. Each successive drive in your new car brings less and less joy. And secondly, as our “normal” shifts, our aspirations increase. Our new, faster car makes us keenly aware of the even faster cars out there — which, given our recent upgrade — feel more accessible than before. As we begin to aspire for the even faster car, the joy that our own brings us vanishes.
In creating aspirations for our future, the tendency for hedonic adaptation creates dissatisfaction with our present. Thus, we are left in a cycle of wanting where our every present moment becomes unbearable at the thought of a better future. So, we sacrifice our present for a better future. Yet, no matter what we achieve, each future moment, when it arrives, becomes another unbearable present which falls flat in comparison to the still better future ahead. The cycle can never stop since there are always more things to achieve — more digits in your bank account or fewer kilograms on the scale.
Hedonic adaptation has a terrible hold on us because we are always looking to the future for happiness: we hope to feel more fulfilled in our future — happier, healthier, more capable and more loved. Yet, we spend every present moment fulfilling our wants without ever experiencing fulfillment itself — or getting better at experiencing fulfillment. Thus, the cure for hedonic adaptation simply is appreciation for our present moment. When we look to appreciate the things that we have — right now — instead of hankering for something we may have — sometime — the dilemma of hedonic adaptation disappears.
That is, when we learn to situate ourselves in our present and become truly grateful for the things that we have, the world transforms in front of us. Your old car becomes a powerful machine that enables us to travel further in one day than our ancestors could in a lifetime. Your partly miss-shaped body becomes the gift that is the product of millennia of fine-tuning and genetic chance rare enough to be a miracle. This same body allows you to experience the radiant environment that we live in, an environment that may be polluted beyond recognition less than a decade from today.
Let’s Be Practical: Building Your Appreciation Muscle
Of course, I’m being hyperbolic — it feels impossible to cherish everything in our present as if it’s some miracle. However, given that we spend most of our lives living either in our future or our past — there is enormous room from creating more presence and gratitude in this moment. Routine interactions with loved ones or pets are finite moments worth cherishing. The food that we binge carelessly is an orchestra of flavor that we rarely tap into. Try eating one mouthful of a simple fruit — maybe a mango, or a date or a plum — very, very slowly, in silence and with your eyes closed. The brilliance with which you will experience that mouthful may remind you of just how absent we are in our present; of how small a portion of our lives we allow ourselves to experience.
Practically, developing a mindfulness practice like meditation (I recommend the app Headspace) or doing any form of exercise with the intention of being more available to and grateful for the moment is a way to build fulfillment into your daily life. Simply pausing for a moment before you eat to appreciate the food that has made its way to your plate works as well as any pausing on any other moments to breathe deeply and just feel appreciative for whatever it is in that moment. The idea is to build more of these moments into our routines and our daily life — moments in which we are consciously grateful. Over time, this attitude of appreciation — which has always been a part of us — becomes our natural disposition to any experience in our life.
This Doesn’t Mean You Stop Getting Better
I am not advocating that we abandon our goals or any ambition for our future — perhaps don’t quit your day job to frolic on the beach. No, aspiration is useful: it is enjoyable, it gives meaning to our lives and allows us to improve our world. Progress is significant and material realities must be attended to, to a degree. Yet, this aspiration need not be a singular obsession — one needn’t give up the destination to enjoy the journey better. Instead, our tendency to hedonic adaptation teaches us that we need to simply be more aware of the positive aspects of our present moment as well. So, even as you do your humdrum job for another day, give yourself the chance to become aware of your opportunity to contribute through your work and to build relationships and solve problems with other interesting human beings.
It is possible to move towards your goals without it having to come at some unworthy sacrifice of your present. And perhaps, if some goals do come at a sacrifice of both your energy and your values, then they are not worth having. More often however, sacrifice is a mentality that we have subconsciously imbibed — as if we are constantly at war with the world. Even the language of the working world is fraught with battle-metaphors: we are constantly concocting “strategies” to meet “deadlines” and “targets” that “beat the competition”. Yet, this mentality of struggle is often incongruent with how pleasant, in the simplest sense, our present lives truly are. And in such cases, appreciation of the present is a simple way to make progress as human beings without depending on future success for fulfillment.
So I hope you build a little more appreciation into your present life. And as you go on, laboring on your journey to wherever it is you are going, I hope you can take a moment to let the breeze lift you as you walk. I hope you can take a moment to let yourself smell the flowers that were on your path all along.