"Why is it that the 'good things' in life seem to have less effect on long-term happiness than is generally thought? The answer seems to be that pleasant experiences increase our level of happiness a little less each time they occur. The chocolate addict who goes to work in a chocolate factory and is allowed to eat as many chocolates as he or she wants is in a paradise on earth ... at first. Then chocolate, and even the thought of chocolate, ceases to be pleasant. As far as the power of life's more pleasurable events to make us happy is concerned, there seems to be an inexorable law of diminishing returns operating.
Happiness depends, in part, on what has happened to us in the past. The ability of past experiences to color present experiences was emphasized by American psychologist Harry Helson. He argued that we all have an 'adaptation level', a point of neutrality corresponding to what we expect to happen, our expectations being based on our past experiences. If what happens is the same as our expectation or adaptation level, we feel neither happy nor unhappy. If what happens is better or worse than expected, then we feel happy or unhappy.
If Harry Helson is correct in his assumption, everyone who aspires for happiness is in rather a bind. A series of pleasant experiences will produce happiness but it will also raise our expectations to a higher level. As a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult for new experiences to be better than expected. And so, in present happiness lie the seeds of future unhappiness. This depressing view of happiness has been called the 'hedonic treadmill' - on a treadmill, you cannot make any genuine progress no matter how fast you run. Since it is most unlikely that life will constantly prove better than expected, the searcher after happiness is caught in the hedonic treadmill.
One of the commonest ways in which increasing expectations or adaptation levels reduce happiness can be seen in the lives of those millions of people who become steadily better off as the years go by. Most of them do not really feel better off, and their increasing wealth does not usually make them happier. They expect an increasingly affluent lifestyle and their escalating expectations put a damper on their happiness.
In spite of the predictions of adaptation level theory, most people firmly believe that more money will make them much happier. When Joyce Brothers, the American television psychologist, asked viewers whether becoming 25 per cent better off financially would make them happier, nearly all of them claimed that it would. What are the facts? In essence, the evidence supports adaptation level theory. One major study which looked at big winners of the Illinois State Lottery, many of whom had won $1 million, found that these 'lucky' people did not feel any happier after their big win than they had before. Nor, it emerged, did they expect to feel any happier two years later. A comparison between these lottery winners and other people who had received sudden windfalls also failed to uncover any positive effect of wealth on personal happiness.These are striking findings. After all, American society is often regarded as the most materialistic on earth.
Adaptation level theory makes the even more surprising prediction that individuals who suffer from severe physical disabilities will gradually reduce their expectations and so become happy as everyone else. In other words, they will adjust to the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. ...
Philip Brickman, an American psychologist at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, tested these ideas with accident victims who were either quadriplegic or paraplegic (paralyzed from the neck down or the waist down). Despite the huge limitations which paralysis imposed on their lives, these people still derived as much pleasure as the able-bodied from common activities such as talking with friends or watching television. More remarkably, they expected to be as happy as other people within two years. Since their accidents were relatively recent, their current level of happiness was somewhat lower than that of other people, but there was little evidence of misery or despair.
Richard Schulz and Susan Decker, at Pittsburgh and Portland University, assessed happiness levels in quadriplegics and paraplegics who has been paralyzed for approximately 20 years and found that their satisfaction with life was only marginally lower than that of the population at large. Those who had the benefit of strong social support of relatives and friends were just as happy as other people. As part of the process of changing expectations and adaptation, many of them said that their disablement had a positive side. It had made them more patient and tolerant, and more aware that brain is more important than brawn.
One of the most remarkable endorsements of adaptation level theory comes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book is a portrait of life in a Siberian labour camp, a topic which Solzhenitsyn was well equipped to write about, having spent eight years in a number of different Siberian labour camps. Despite the horrors of his everyday life, the hero of the book, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, is not in the wretched state one might imagine. An inkling as to why this is so emerges when he considers the day in his life which has been described in the earlier part of the book: 'Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day: They hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent the team to the settlement; he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled a bit of hacksaw-blade through; he'd earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it ... A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.'
Shukov had adjusted his expectations downwards to suit the discomforts of the camp and was therefore not unhappy. His adjustment was so great that even things such as buying tobacco and not falling ill were enough to make the day a good one.
What can we do about the hedonic treadmill? Paradoxically, one way of increasing future happiness would be to reduce the adaptation level in the present by avoiding pleasurable activities. There are numerous examples of this approach among the world's religions, which regard temporary abstinence from pleasure as a valuable experience. Consider the Christian tradition of Lent, in which the 40 weekdays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Eve are given over to fasting and penitence. Another example is Ramdan, the ninth month of the Muslim Lunar calendar, during which devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset."
H. & M. Eysenck