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Has the glow of gratitude for everything you've achieved worn off? Here's how to combat 'Hedonic Adaptation'

Living the dream but not feeling it? When Suzy Bashford moved to the Scottish Highlands, it was a lifelong wish come true – so why did the shine wear off so soon? Then, she learned about the hedonic treadmill, and how to get off it

by Psychologies

Hedonistic adaptation

6 minute read

Living in the Highlands has always been my dream. A few years ago, I made it a reality, packing up my commuter-belt life to head for the hills and a freer, more fun family existence.

As the removal van pulled into our new driveway, in our new village enveloped by pine forests, my heart felt so full of gratitude I thought it might burst. It felt intuitively ‘right’, like no other decision I had ever made.

With childlike glee, I placed our belongings lovingly in their new home. I kept stopping to savour the view from the many windows scattered around the light and airy modern house. I did a jig in my walk-in wardrobe. I stood in the shower, fully clothed, eager to experience an en suite of my own – all the time bathing in the sound of my two boys whooping for joy outside in our ‘epic’ (their description) garden. It was so different from the dark, cramped, and slightly crumbly cottage we’d come from. I remember vowing: ‘I am never going to take this for granted.’

Fast forward three years and it’s alarming how quickly I’ve come to accept my Highland life as no longer ‘dreamlike’, but normal. Expected. Of course, I can rationally list all the things for which I am grateful – but I no longer feel that thankfulness in my bones, the way I did at the beginning. (Apart from the breathtaking mountain views, that is, which I think will always stop me in my tracks – although some locals have become accustomed to them, apparently.) The material and lifestyle changes we made have slipped casually into being my new normal and I simply don’t have the same appreciation for them – and that bothers me.

Consciously trying to recreate the feeling of gratitude through journalling and meditation hasn’t worked. And the chaotic state of my once pristine walk-in wardrobe and en-suite bathroom tell their own story about how much care and acknowledgment I show them these days.

Yes, I won – now what?

I was relieved to discover, while listening to psychologist Sasha Heinz on the ‘Unmistakable Creative’ podcast, that it’s not just me, or a sign that I’m a spoilt brat who doesn’t realise how good she has it. Apparently, it’s a well-known psychological phenomenon called ‘hedonic adaptation’: the theory that humans tend to have a ‘set’ level of happiness, or unhappiness, which they return to regardless of major life events, good or bad. It’s the reason why, say researchers, lottery winners are often no happier a couple of years after their big win.

To combat hedonic adaptation in relation to where you live, Heinz suggests ‘being deliberate about your experiences and making sure you do things that are awesome’; and also ‘purposefully staying in places that aren’t as nice, fancy or high brow’. ‘Actively do things that challenge your “new normal”,’ she says, suggesting camping as an example. ‘Go without and you’ll quickly appreciate your home comforts.’

I can see how this could work for some people but, in my Highland life, where wild camping is a ‘normal’ weekend, social activity, it doesn’t create the kind of change of perspective required to jolt me into genuine gratitude.

But, thinking about her theory, I realised there was something I had done recently that had really unsettled me, in a good way. I’d had to go to London for work and wanted to stay centrally and, since I was on a tight budget, I’d booked into a dormitory in a youth hostel. As a professional woman of 41, I thought this might be frowned upon. I even remember flushing when I booked it online, worried about what others might think of me if they knew, especially some of my wealthier friends, for whom seeking out the perfect hotel is a hobby.

However, looking back, I realised I’d loved staying in the hostel – as well as being enjoyable in unexpected ways, it afforded me an experience very different from my normal life. I’d returned home with a spring in my step, excited to jump back into my real life with a new perspective of it.

I got back onto Hostelworld and booked another stay and, this time, I decided I would be more mindful about how I approached the venture. I knew I would enjoy the novelty, and the freedom of not having children to worry about but, rather than allow myself to be irritated by the discomforts and inconveniences of a hostel, and grudgingly accept them merely as a by-product of saving money, I deliberately used them to reset my ‘normal’ bar.

Seeing is believing

Waiting in the queue for the bathroom, only to eventually be greeted by sodden shower mats and strangers’ hair, became a much more visceral, real gratitude practice for my own private, clean bathroom at home than journalling had proved. Same with the incessant noise, the melee of people constantly in your personal space and snoring dormmates. For some, who were staying in the hostel long term as a cheap way to live in London, this is everyday life. But I knew I would soon be back in my Highland home, and I felt excited about that moment. It was a powerful reminder of how blessed I am.

I have made it

Talking to the much younger hostel guests helped me see how many of my younger self’s aspirations I had realised. As some chatted about their dreams – to travel, to meet someone special, to settle down and have a family – I was reminded of how much I desperately used to desire these things, too. I was reminded how, at one point, I had no confidence that these events would happen and how elated I would have been if a fairy godmother had swooped down and reassured me that my dreams would come true. Again, that blessed feeling.

Arriving home to Scotland and my family, I felt buoyed by how this temporary life swap had filled me with more than just tokenistic gratitude. This time, opening my journal, the words flowed out about my hostel experience and all the things it made me appreciate afresh.

According to Kitty Waters, transformational teacher and host of the weekly ‘Kitty Talks’ podcast, gratitude is at the top of the emotional vibrational scale, which means it’s one of the best ways to guard against getting caught up in the comparison of the hedonic treadmill, because it shifts us from ‘low-level jealousy to high-level thanks’. Another way is to be careful about ‘who you hang around with and the community you spend time in’, she says. ‘If you’re around really materialistic people, it will rub off.’

This struck a chord because, while I live in a truly unmaterialistic community, my Facebook feed isn’t and, recently, I’d been spending more time online. Could that be fuelling my dissatisfaction? ‘Yes!’ says Waters emphatically. Her hunch is backed up by yet more research confirming that too much social media makes us unhappy. A recent study, published in the Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, tracked participants who intentionally reduced their usage to see the impact it would have. What did researchers conclude? Our smartphones are making us depressed, as well as lonely. Their recommendation? To reduce screen time to 10 minutes a day per platform.

A daily dose of joy

At first, when I attempted to cut down on my social-media use, I had a fear of missing out on what was happening, but that passed and, very soon, I was thinking less about other people’s lives – and became less conscious of the things I didn’t have.

I also had more time, and found myself savouring the small pleasures of life – like walking my dogs – rather than rushing them, or breaking away from them to use my phone. These little sources of happiness, says Waters, are key. ‘On a daily basis, do one thing that brings you joy. Become conscious of things that bring you pleasure, not things that look good on Instagram. Incorporate them into your life. Passion and joy are like gratitude – high-level emotions – and they are the fastest way off the low-level hedonic comparison mill.’

Image: Getty