Americans spend more time shopping than any other people in the world. From designer shoes to fancy televisions, we purchase not because we necessarily want the actual material item, but because we believe the item will make us feel good.
God forbid you have a terrible accident causing debilitating pain. The good news is that, over time, you get used to the pain (you would adapt), allowing you to resume ordinary daily function. When life is miserable, adaptation is our best friend. However, when happiness and well-being are the goal, adaptation is our worst enemy. Extensive research in the social sciences shows that just as we get used to debilitating back pain, we get used to the goods we reach for when feeling low. Hedonic adaptation is the term psychologists use to describe the reality that no matter how many pleasurable goods we accumulate, our level of happiness or satisfaction will ultimately end where it started prior to obtaining that item.
The insatiable materialism and devastating debt suffered by millions of Americans are consequences of hedonic adaptation. My dear friend and colleague, Amy, is a prime example. Amy struggles to afford her lifestyle, yet continues to buy shoes that cost hundreds of dollars because in the heat of the moment, with her credit card in hand, she honestly believes new shoes are going to make her life better. And as the shoes are handed over the counter, she feels a brief moment of elation. A few weeks later, however, the shoes inevitably end up in the back of her closet along with the multitude of other heels she never wears. Considering her disappointment and monetary loss, the hope is that she ultimately stops herself before buying expensive shoes she can’t afford.
Unfortunately, as research by decision-making expert Dr. Barry Schwartz demonstrates, the peculiar thing about humans is that we fail to anticipate hedonic adaptation. Amy is not weak or stupid; she is a human being with a nervous system hardwired for survival. When life throws us challenges (i.e., a debilitating back injury), adaptation is our best friend: We get used to the pain and can continue to perform our daily tasks. However, when happiness and well-being are the goal, adaptation is our worst enemy.
In our consumer culture of excess, understanding hedonic adaptation exposes the fallacy of the social script “if you are not happy, you simply need to get _________.” So we work long hours, accumulate mountains of stuff, and end up right where we started—or worse, disappointed and indebted. Break the cycle and get clear about what we really want to cultivate in our lives.
- Understand your tendencies. Every time you go to purchase something, understand hedonic adaptation as a hardwired feature of being human and anticipate the effects. You know you want the shoes in the moment, but ask yourself if you’re going to want them in three months. Better yet, consider whether you really need the item. Is this item essential for your physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual flourishing? If not, let it go.
- Begin a gratitude practice. According to decision-making expert Dr. Barry Schwartz, cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” is the most important personal practice to develop in our consumer culture. People who regularly express gratitude are more optimistic, enthusiastic, physically healthier, and feel better about their lives.
- Reflect on what you really want to cultivate in your life. Take thirty minutes to brainstorm around the question “When I am the best version of myself, what do I put my energy toward?” Gaining clarity around what you really care about provides the solid foundation needed to overcome the allure of the next shiny toy.