There's a concept called hedonic adaptation, which says that we quickly adjust to any increased level of comfort or luxury and cease to appreciate it. Anything good that happens to us becomes our new normal, and we look higher up the ladder, not realizing that we'll quickly adjust to those rungs as well.
The trick, then, is to suppress your hedonic adaptation, while still climbing up that ladder. If you can manage to do that, you can fully appreciate everything you already have, and future accomplishments, acquisitions, etc., will also be fully appreciated.
I don't know if it's fully possible to suppress hedonic adaptation. There's some evidence that zen monks who meditate all the time can do it to a large degree. Even if we're not going to spend all day meditating and will never fully get rid of it, though, we can easily move in that direction.
One strategy I use is to occasionally ask myself, "What's amazing in my life?" For one reason or another, this tends to happen when I'm en route somewhere, either on the subway, walking, or on my motorcycle.
Last week I was rounding the corner on my way from Chipotle to the subway and I asked myself the question. The first thing that I thought of was that my friends and I bought an island. I probably looked like a crazy person, because I just started laughing. It occurred to me that not only do I own an island with some of my best friends, but it's also become normal. By thinking about that, I was able to flip hedonic adaptation on its head, deriving joy from the actual good thing in my life, as well as the fact that it has become normal. What a life!
Even bad things can be the source of joy. A long time ago I lost a huge amount of money, essentially everything I had saved up through years of professional gambling. Surprisingly, though, it made me happier. I thought about how amazing it was that I could lose such a huge amount of money and still have a good life. It put everything in perspective.
Those two examples are extreme, but gratitude can come from nothing. Last week I was riding my motorcycle over a hill and I could see San Francisco unfold in front of me, the sunset tinting everything orange. Wow, I thought, how amazing is it just to be alive! Looking at all of the people and cars and buildings that we as a species have built filled me with awe and appreciation. It made me remember that islands and managing losing money notwithstanding, just being alive is such an amazing thing. Just being able to live on this earth is so great that all of our glasses should be all the way full all the time.
All of this is the secret to why I'm happy all the time. If you're not happy all the time, it's the key to changing that. I know that I have it easy, but I also know people who have had a really rough time who are always happy. One of my good friends had both parents die and she almost died of cancer herself, and she's one of the happiest people I know. So don't let bad things empty your glass-- remember that we all have enough amazing things in our lives for our glasses to be at least half full, if not completely full.
Photo is some longjingcha in Hangzhou. Great tea, but incredibly annoying way to have it served.
If you're in San Francisco, come hang out at the reader meetup this Sunday. Details here.
When I bought a house ten years ago, I also bought place settings for six and silverware for twelve. Then I developed a minor fascination with bone China and bought settings for eight. I probably had four dozen glasses. About once a month or so, all of these dishes would be piled up in and around my sink, begging to be cleaned. I didn't have a lot of dinner parties-- I just hated doing dishes so much that I'd procrastinate until washing became a full day event. Those days were some of my least favorite.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes for the six of us that ate dinner. There were pots, pans, plates, serving utensils, and glasses. The works. For the first time ever, I found myself enjoying doing the dishes. I could appreciate the warm water on my hands and the shine in the pot when it was clean. When I washed everything that wasn't dishwasher safe, I started handwashing the things that could have just gone in the dishwasher. It wasn't fun exactly, but it was so enjoyable that I actually found myself looking forward to washing the dishes the next day.
Work has become the same way. I don't love all aspects of it equally, but when I wake up and know I have a tough day ahead of me, I feel great. Pant of it is that I know the day will end with a nice chunk of progress made, but most of it is the actual act of working. I love it. I can't wait to face off with a bug that's been bothering me for weeks, trace it through all of our code, and fix it. It's relaxing, like an internal Swedish massage.
My friend Constance wrote me an email today. She was talking about me with her sister and some friends, describing my hyperfocus on work, learning, and other productive things. An excerpt from her email:
Ninety percent of the challenge of being an entrepreneur is emotional. And I don’t mean being able to cope with long, stressful hours and grueling uncertainty, though there’s that too. What I’m referring to is the constant game of comparison that nobody talks about but that we’re all playing in our heads, day in and day out.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this is. I don’t have the answer.
Sure, some of it may have to do with hedonic adaptation – humanity’s worst psychological quirk. When the lottery winner spends all his money and is depressed when he’s thrust back into his old life? That’s hedonic adaptation. When the guy gets the girl of his dreams and, with his newfound confidence, goes after her cuter friend? That’s hedonic adaptation. Essentially, it’s the idea that happiness is a treadmill, not a marathon. Accomplishments don’t get you any closer to some end goal. Your expectations are cursed by the Red Queen, constantly pushing you back to the same place.
But that can’t be all of it. Hedonic adaptation might lead to depression, but it shouldn’t lead to envy. Here’s a thought: what if these adjusting expectations also affect how you compare yourself to others?
If you asked me a year ago about my goals for the past year, I’ve accomplished all of them. I’m working on interesting projects with people I love while traveling the world. I’m reading and writing and building and improving myself. But because I’ve entrenched myself in a community of such incredible people, my expectations for myself have adjusted too.