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Evolution Doesn’t Want You To Be Happy All The Time

One of the more puzzling quirks of human psychology has a name: hedonic adaptation, Melissa Dahl writes. It’s a term psychologists use to describe the way you get used to the things that once made you happy.

Getting a long-sought-after promotion, for example, initially makes you makes you feel more satisfied with your life — but after a year or so, the feeling fades. You’re about as happy as you were before you got the new job.

This phenomenon is well-studied, and a classic of the genre is one particular study published in 1978, which found that, after some time had passed, lottery winners were not that much happier than they were before they’d won. Even more telling, they were not that much happier than another group included in that study: people who had recently suffered some terrible accident, and as a result had become paraplegic or quadriplegic.

So if this is truly a central part of human nature, wouldn’t it make sense to stop fighting it? After all, you get used to things because you are supposed to get used to things. It’s for your own good.

“These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving,” psychologist Frank T McAndrew says. “If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant — or at least, mundane — present.”

It’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. Happiness isn’t meant to last, a statement that sounds incredibly sad, but doesn’t have to be. As McAndrew phrases it, “Recognizing that happiness exists — and that it’s a delightful visitor that never overstays its welcome — may help us appreciate it more when it arrives.”

Topics: Evolution doesn’t want you to be happy all the time. Hedonic adaptation; illusion of constant contentment