In 1950, the average new home was 983 square feet. In 1960, that grew to 1,200 square feet. 1970? 1,500 square feet. Fast forward to 2018, and we’re at 2,300 square feet. The 1950’s version of ourselves would walk the streets of generic suburban America and assume everyone was living in mansions and had achieved the American dream.
By nearly every measure, we have more than even a generation ago. The once lavish has transformed into the norm. The luxury items of years past that were reserved for the wealthy are commonplace.
Transport Joe Schmoe from 1950 to present-day middle-class and he’d think he’d hit the jackpot. Giant houses, rooms for more than eating and sleeping, fridge, microwave, grills, computers, and perhaps most importantly for those in my home city of Houston, air-conditioning. (By the way, why anyone in their right mind lived in Houston pre-AC is a puzzle I will never understand…)
Hedonic adaptation is a hell of a thing. We quickly adapt to our circumstances, maintaining a baseline of happiness no matter what we accumulate or have taken away. It’s as if we have an internal thermostat, and while a big win might momentarily raise the temperature, our air conditioning kicks in, and quickly drags us back to our set point, readying us to start the journey toward feeling warm again.
This thermostat is an inbuilt safety mechanism, meant to ensure that when bad things happen we don’t dwell on the negative, and get stuck in a depressed and unproductive state. It functions well in getting over the tragic, allowing us to get back to baseline, for example, after a horrible accident or the death of a loved one, much quicker than we would otherwise. But when it comes to the other side of the coin, happiness, we adapt to all the gadgets and gizmos around us, quickly forgetting that a few short weeks ago, it seemed like all we needed in the world to make us happy was a new game console or that new kitchen appliance.
The body and mind are remarkable at adapting. And to solve the never-ending adaptation problem, we tend to fall into the increase our performance, finances, and stuff approach—essentially, always leveling up the “stimulus,” knowing that our expectations will rise again, but hoping we have enough resources to then inject another boost to keep the never-ending game of one-upmanship going. And that’s how you go from a 950 square foot house to a 2,300 square foot house.
But that doesn’t mean you are a slave to your adaptation. You can resist the constant pull of more, more, more. You can address the other side of the equation: expectations.
Sure, expectations will be constantly pulled via a combination of your inner biology and looking up and glancing around at what others have around you. But it doesn’t mean we can’t influence and slow the pull. Warren Buffett drives a $23,000 car, eats at McDonald’s every morning, and lives in a home he bought in 1958 for $32,000. Sure, the man could have superpowers, or he could have figured out a way to resist the pull of more.
I’m not sure how Buffett does it, but when addressing the expectations side of the happiness equation, what tends to work is being extremely clear on what matters to you, and what you value. This isn’t a corporate business version of values where you plaster some slogans on the wall and then forget about them. This is understanding what’s important, and then constantly reminding yourself of that, and checking in to see if you are living in alignment with those values.
It’s not that you have to be obsessive, never splurging on that fancy coffee maker. It’s that when you stick it in your Amazon cart, you want to have that brief moment where you can check yourself. I find it helpful to define things that bring me value that I’m never really going to second guess. For me, those items are books and running shoes. If I want to read a book, I’m going to get it. And if I need anything running related, it’s going in the cart. I don’t think about them because those activities are important. Why waste mental energy there?
It also helps to check in and remind yourself what actually brings you joy, happiness, and contentment. We often fall for the trap that ‘things’ bring us joy because we get a very brief momentary boost when we get something new. However, that quickly fades, and we’re on to the next item. What we miss out on are the slow burn items that give us joy and contentment over the long haul, but lack that brief jolt: for example, going on runs or long walks, reading a good book, spending time with family, eating great meal in great company, game night with friends, being absorbed in a hobby, a deep conversation. All items that often lack the feel-good anticipation of the much more concrete buying and consuming stuff.
So as we enter a new year, consider it an opportunity to do a quick check. What’s really important to you? What truly brings you happiness, joy, and satisfaction? We’re all on the treadmill, seeking more, more, more. But don’t forget that you’re in control. You don’t have to get lost, always trying to one-up yourself. You control the speed dial, and every once in a while it’s prudent to check in and see if it’s where it needs to be, or if you need to slow down and walk for a while, even if everyone else around you is running. Being okay with running your own race at your own pace is what life is often all about.