“Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” (Proverbs 5:10).
Have you ever noticed that however much money you make, your desires tend to fill up that level of income?
This observation has been titled by psychologists Brickman and Campbell as “Hedonic Adaptation.” According to their theory, “Hedonic adaptation…is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. As a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness” (Wikipedia).
In other words, you could wake up tomorrow making $250,000 a year, and you would think, “This is awesome! Life is incredible!” Unless you have found your source of contentment outside of things, however, you will not be any happier after awhile.
I’ve been spending a significant amount of time in the past several weeks thinking about and studying the subject of contentment.
Among the greatest influences have been a financial blogger who goes by the pseudonym “Mr. Money Mustache.” This guy and his wife managed to minimize their lifestyles in their 20s to such an extent he was able to retire at age 30, living on only about $25,000 per year and investing the rest. Now he’s able to spend more time with his wife and family, work on projects he enjoys, volunteer to help others, and work on his writing as much as he wants. What’s the key to his success? He and his wife have taken inventory of their true sources of contentment and fulfillment, such as writing, renovating and building their house, spending time with their son, biking and exercising, and other inexpensive activities. In doing so, they chose also to eliminate the material excess which does not provide any real lasting happiness, such as luxury cars (they bike most places and only own one ten-year-old car), big houses, fancy gadgets, and so on.
One of the takeaways from reading his blog is the realization that he is not depriving himself of any happiness by declining more possessions. In fact, he is doing exactly the opposite. He realizes that more things require more time, time which often does not deliver an acceptable level of reward for the sacrifice. For example, being a former software developer and technology enthusiast like me, Mr. Money Mustache recently contemplated the purchase of a new iPad. However, after weighing the pros and cons of the purchase, he decided that an iPad would likely lead him to spend more time on mindless leisure, which would detract from his level of happiness rather than contribute to it.
In my own life, I have found hedonic adaptation to be alive and well. A couple of months ago, I upgraded from my old 165,000 mile 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which had a smashed passenger side, no air conditioning for the 4+ summers I drove it, blown speakers that made listening to the radio unbearable, and leaked fluids all the time. I would have to explain to friends if they got in the back seat that they had to use the left side door, since the right wouldn’t open. When we went on dates, I would often have to open my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) door from the inside, creating quite the little dance of embarrassed “chivalry.” Red lights in the summertime were a dreaded evil, since the lack of air from the windows caused my body to quickly compensate with buckets of sweat. For about a year, I began researching various models of cars, drooling over sporty coupes like the Infiniti G35, while balancing them out with boring models like the Ford Taurus. After considering as many different models as I could, I finally decided to purchase a 2011 Mazda3, which has a sporty look, icy air conditioning, a premium BOSE sound system, bluetooth technology for taking phone calls and listening to music from my phone, and some other fancy features. But, do you know what I have found? As much as I enjoy driving my new car, as happy as I am with the deal I found, and as much as the drummer in me loves feeling the bass of the new sound system, the reality is that I am not significantly happier having purchased it, and I would not be significantly happier if I had a Lamborghini. This is because true happiness and contentment are not to be found in things. We adjust to the level of comfort we currently enjoy.
On the contrary, I still find myself happiest spending a day reading books from the library, hiking or picnicking with my wife, jamming out on the drums, being generous toward someone in need, grilling out with family, or working on a challenging programming project.
Now, this is not to say that consumption and entertainment are not to be enjoyed in moderation, but I have found that when overdone, the lethargic feeling of wasted time leads to discontentment and even depression.
Because of this recent discovery and mental processing, I am beginning to challenge every desire and purchase, looking not only at whether it would be convenient or fun to have, but considering how much time it would detract from other enjoyable activities in life to maintain and use it.
When your possessions and desires take away from your ultimate happiness, I have to quote that wise and great philosopher of YouTube: “Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.”