I was reading an article on cnn.com this morning that claimed lottery winners are actually less happy in the long run than us Plain Janes or Joe Shmoes. It didn’t surprise me much. Everyone thinks money is the answer. It seems logical to me that if you are unhappy with little, you’ll probably be just as unhappy with much once the novelty of being wealthy wears off.
We all know people like that, right? The ones who, no matter what, are always complaining about something. Life is never able to deliver quite enough. It always falls short. Maybe it’s your sister, your best friend, maybe it’s you.
I used to be one of those people on a small scale. I had these grand ideas about what life would look like, and when I grew up and realized the picture wasn’t quite so rosy I got frustrated and felt let down. I don’t know why; I don’t know who I thought owed me something or why I was special and deserved something extra.
I think I fully came to this realization when I finally got “everything I ever wanted,” and I was still disillusioned. I got married to an amazing guy and my best friend. I had a baby. We owned our own house. I got to stay home with my kids. And, surprise! I still had feelings of disenchantment with life. It wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I’ve spoken with many people who’ve had similar experiences as they entered into adulthood and achieved things or hit milestones.
In that article, Michael Norton calls this feeling “happiness adaptation.” We, essentially, get used to all of our good stuff and it loses its luster. He says:
“Big positive and negative events can have a lasting impact on our happiness, but this impact tends to decrease over time. In some sense, because people have so many facets of their life – from their job to their friends to their family to their hobbies – the impact of a change in any one of those facets is less extreme than we think, because many of the other things in our lives stay the same. (We win the lottery but we are still stuck with our same siblings, for example.) As a result of this, people tend to adapt to life events and end up closer to where they were than they think they’d be.”
There are great aspects to this, such as our ability to adjust to hard things. They become our new normal, we adapt and we move on. What got me was his last sentence- people tend to adapt to life events and end up closer to where they were than they think they’d be.
I wonder– is it possible to experience difficult and happy life changes in such a way that they leave you forever changed for the better in all facets of life? How much focus and intentionality would it take to allow life’s ups and downs to permanently mark you? I’m not saying we should walk around depressed we lost the big game or permanently traumatized by a tragic death for the rest of our lives; I am saying that maybe we should experience life in such a way that we remain vulnerable enough– moldable enough– to be changed by it. We grow hard, cold and dry so quickly, don’t we?
A couple years ago when we began to realize our daughter was delayed, I was crushed. I didn’t know if I could ever recover… I thought I would be sad for the rest of my life, like part of me had died. My happiness adaptation kicked in after a while and it became our new normal, with painful reminders every time we were around typical kids that she was, in fact, not normal. I shut myself out to protect myself from these reminders, so I could just pretend in my own world that everything was fine. Thankfully, with some great counseling and a lot of emotionally difficult work, I was able to warm up and become moldable again. I was able to be stretched and grown, and as a result I was actually able to love more, and better. I thought this disability my daughter had would be crippling, but it turns out that it has forced me into a place of life-giving growth and freedom. It was that final push over the edge that allowed me to release my fierce grip on expectations and simply free fall. I no longer strive for control over my circumstances or environment, but rather to live open-handedly, clinging to nothing but the grace of God.
I yell less. I harbor bitterness less. I give up less. I’m angry less.
I’m content more. I’m free more. I’m happy more. I’m patient more. I’m empathetic more.
And it’s not because I tried really hard to work on those things individually; it’s because it just sort of naturally flows out of this new me- this new normal. I’ve been permanently marked. It would be impossible to go back to the way I used to be.
“Happiness adaptation” isn’t a law of behavior for our brain- it’s simply a label for the habit patterns we exhibit. We are not bound by it; it is in our power to change our habit patterns. We don’t have to settle for a dull, dissatisfied normal. And maybe the great things we aspire to actually have less to do with our happiness than we think, and even our greatest burdens drag us down less than we believe. Maybe the hard things in life can be stepping stones to better living; not better stuff, greater achievements, or more milestones… but substantial life experiences that give us meaning and depth.
Have you ever looked at a picture or painting that had hardly any contrast? This is what life is like when we simply drift through it in a stale, self-preservative way. The colors are all the same shade, it’s hard to make out the shapes, it has no texture or feeling. You lose all the details that make the picture beautiful.
I was a youth leader for a long time, during which a 13 year old boy in our group lost his mother in a car accident his entire family was in on their way home from vacation. At camp some months later that year, he said something regarding his loss that I’ll never forget- “Sometimes when God paints the story of our lives, he has to use dark colors.” Only 13 years old, and that boy understood something profound about life I am just beginning to discover. I want to be the picture on the right. Fully embrace the darker hues, celebrate the bright spots, and find myself somewhere in their balance- though there be discomfort in the tension, there is beauty and fullness when you look at the entire picture.