Your happiness is most likely to adapt to new circumstances, no matter if they get better or worse.
This is going to be a rather controversial topic, but I’m so fascinated by the principle that I must share it with you. I stumbled upon it first time in a book called The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.
If you had to come up with the very best and very worst things that could happen to you, you might easily think of winning ten million euros in lottery and becoming paralyzed from the neck down. You would figure that winning the lottery would provide long-lasting happiness as you’d be able to acquire more freedom, pursue your dreams and help others. Moreover, you might think that becoming paralyzed would be the actuation for being miserable for rest of your life. Many people think that they would rather be dead than paralyzed.
Although, it’s better to win the lottery, we suck at estimating the levels of future happiness in these two incidents. Whatever happens, you’re very likely to adapt to it, but it’s hard to see up front. We tend to largely overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Jonathan Haidt states that “within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.
The regular route for a lottery winner would be to quit her job, buy a new car and get a nice new house. She will certainly feel pleased by the contrast to her old life, but as time goes by, the contrast blurs and she’ll get use to her new life. The new comforts becomes the new baseline of her life, which will set her happiness level accordingly. The problems becomes as the money pile shrinks, but the lottery winner doesn’t have the competence to gain or control new wealth. There’s no way of rising further in the situation. Even worse, the money may have affected her relationships negatively, being without a job might result in loss of meaningfulness and the money may have attracted all sorts of selfish impostors to her life. Lottery winners are so often harassed that some might need to move, end relationships and hide. Nearly all winners are still happy that they won, though.
On the other end of the spectrum, the paraplegic takes a huge happiness loss in the beginning. He thinks his life is over and it sucks to give up on dreams and hopes. But just like the lottery winner, his mind is prone to adapt. The brain is more sensitive to changes than to absolute levels. Hence, after a few months, the paraplegic starts to get used to his condition. He starts to set more modest goals and seek success in the improvements of his physical abilities. As expectations are reduced to zero, all that comes is a bonus.
Even though this was a somewhat polarized example, the principle about adaptability is rather powerful. As you can be almost certain to hit the same level of happiness in every situation, try to move up the baseline by being grateful of what you have.