You Are Designed To Be Unhappy (Here’s Why and what To Do About It)

This essay was originally featured in my free Sunday newsletter.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

-Epicurus

Think about all the things in your life right now: your car, job, career, education, and every purchase you’ve ever made in your life up to this point. All of these things were once something you wanted. After all, if you didn’t desire them you wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of getting them. 

Life Law: Anything you’ve ever gone after was first something you desired.

Return to the current moment and think about how yo don’t think about these things the way you thought about them when you wanted them since you now have them. Since they are now just are a part of your life, it’s unlikely you aren’t as grateful for them as you used to be, especially compared to when you first got them.

Life Law: The longer you posses something, the less appreciation and gratitude you have for it.

Try to think of something you used to be excited about but now is just another part of your life—a car, a relationship, a watch, a home, your new condo, a move to a new city, whatever.

Now, think back to the time when you were excited about this thing. Try to remember how strongly you felt and how excited you were as you were working hard to attain it.

Finally, consider those feelings to your present feelings regarding this thing.

Isn’t it crazy how our desires, wants and appreciation changes so drastically over the insidious course of time?

(If you didn’t put much effort into this thought exercise, try it again. Then thank me later.) 

The reason you are no longer excited about this thing–and a slew of other things in your life–is because of a concept called Hedonic Adaptation.

Hedonic Adaptation explains how we ‘get used to’ something.

After a thing has been in your life for awhile, you become used to it–you hedonically adapted to it. Once you’ve adapted to it, you don’t appreciate it the way you used to because there is no trigger in your life that reminds you to express gratitude for said thing (which is why gratitude is so powerful and necessary).

A Thought Exercise

It would serve you well to remind yourself what you have now was once new and shiny. Try to remember how you used to desired the things you now have, and the effort you put into attaining them. Then remember how, once you got them, you were ecstatic. Visualize what you saw in them when you wanted them. Engage these thoughts so that you will recreate the desire. Try to relive the same feelings of excitement and yearning. Finally, imagine losing them. Imagine they go away and never come back and think about how this would make you feel? 

Try it!

This simple—yet powerful—practice of reminding yourself to be grateful for the things you have from the point of view of your former self is useful for combating the dangerous trap that is hedonic adaptation. This is called Negative Visualization—visualizing loss—and Gratitude—promoting appreciation.

To practice Negative Visualization and Gratitude: View everything you have as if you didn’t have it. Let the desire well up: remember what you felt when you wanted the thing you now have. Think thoughts of gratitude and appreciation and your mind to a place of appreciation and gratefulness.

Gratitude moves the mind from a place of expectation and wanting more—which is the default mindset for most—to a place of appreciation and contentment. This is, in my opinion, a secret to a fully healthy, happy and content life.

Life lesson: Spend more time and energy being grateful instead of desiring more. 

ferris-wheel-of-life

Hedonic Adaptation

Humans are notorious for wanting new, better and shiny. Thanks to our ancestors that lived in a state of perpetual resource gathering that was necessary for survival in hunter gatherer times, our yearning for new and more is programmed into our genes. If our ancestors were not obsessed with attaining more resources, they would have been less likely to survive, and since you and I are here, our ancestors were capable enough to attain the resources to survive, procreate and raise the future generations.

Nowadays we live in modern society, and since living in a modern society is not the same as living in the harsh wild, we have what’s called an ‘environmental mismatch.’ This mismatch is the root to many of the problems that humans faces on a daily basis—obesity, disease, loneliness, depression, etc. 

As human beings, we need to train our brains to avoid hedonic adaptation and to move to a place of gratitude and appreciation (both of which help us with restraint and balance). Moving to a place of gratitude helps mitigate the negative effects of hedonic adaptation while also helping control our impulses for more and better, which are largely responsible for negative behaviors in the form of compulsion, addiction and discontentment. For most of us, we have all we will ever need to live long, healthy and happy lives, so you’d think we’d all be happy and totally taking advantage of this, right? 

W. R. O. N. G.

Unfortunately, human beings are more unhappy, sick and depressed than ever. And I believe one of the root causes is this constant chasing of more, new and shiny (of which our environmental mismatch is largely responsible). The reason this constant yearning for more is bad is, since we have so much available and nothing limiting us, we end up chasing obsessively chasing externals in the hope of finding fulfillment. Of course, this is a fool’s errand because externals don’t bring fulfillment, and so, we end up stuck in a hedonic hamster wheel.

So many turn to shopping, drugs, entertainment, sex, money, and power as a means of trying to fulfill their need for new, more and shiny, which is, of course, just a hollow pursuit of fulfillment.  This is the “shiny ball syndrome” in full effect, and no human is spared from its nasty sway. 

The human hamster wheel goes like this: we want, get, then want more. Then, when we get, we are temporarily satisfied until we have hedonically adapted, at which point we move on to the next thing. 

hedonic-adaptation

A real life example: You save up for years to buy your first car, all the while counting down the days until you get your license. The day comes and you buy the best car your money can buy. You are ecstatic; it’s the perfect car. You are throughly excited about the freedom and autonomy you now have. It’s a great feeling through and through.

And what happens in 6 months?

Your car, and the freedom it affords you, are now just another thing in your life. You don’t think about them much anymore, if at all. They aren’t exciting to you. As a result, they aren’t something you appreciate anymore. You might even feel entitled to them, as if nothing could take them away from you. You are completely adapted to them and probably on to the next new thing—a boyfriend or girlfriend, an exotic trip, a drum set, an Xbox, whatever.

Then, once you acquire this new thing, what happens in 6 months? 

The same damn thing!

The Hedonic Treadmill: The cycle of wanting, getting and adapting repeats itself over and over and over. You seek things out, get them, then seek out other things after you have adapted to the new things. You are a drug addict in the most socially acceptable sense. 

And here’s the thing: We all are addicts.

I’m not here to speak on the morality of all of this. Maybe the Buddhist monk that shuns all worldly possession has the right answer, maybe not. Either way, I know I don’t want to live like a monk and that’s why my goal is to try to avoid—reverse if possible—the adverse effects of hedonic adaptation: anxiety and fear of loss, discontent from always chasing and wanting, and the fundamental lack of gratitude that comes when you are in a state of scarcity versus abundance.

Here’s the thing about life: You and I will always seek more. This is just something we need to accept. Instead of criticizing the fact that we consume too much and are never satisfied, let’s instead think of ways we can get better at the process. Perhaps we can move to a place of appreciation so much so that we don’t get (too) stuck in the hedonic treadmill. Perhaps we can find ways to can avoid slipping into the “shiny ball syndrome,” like expressing gratitude for things we have instead of focusing on what we don’t.

I don’t know if there is a “best” answer or just a “better” one. But I do know that it is possible to get better at this stuff because I’ve been able to do it in my own life.

Of course, you don’t get better at this stuff overnight. It’s a process, and the first step is, thinking about the things you have now the way you did before you had them. The practices of Negative Visualization and Gratitude will move your mind from a place of yearning to appreciation. 

An amazing thing we all should be grateful for: life!

Think about it: being alive is something we all want and have been granted our entire lives. That’s pretty amazing if you consider that you and I were not one of the  150,000 or so people that died yesterday. That’s a pretty awesome thing that we should all grateful for, wouldn’t you agree?

Instead of wasting so much energy on what you don’t have, expend it on being grateful for what you do. This simple change of mental frame can change your life for the better in more ways than one.

Look back on our past and use it as a way to appreciate what you have now. Then spend more time thinking about what you have instead of what you don’t.

Grateful,

-Colin

Colin headshot

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