“If abundance is the enemy of appreciation, scarcity may be our best ally,” according to Happy Money. From wine to back rubs, habituation represents an instinctive barrier to everlasting pleasure. Even entertaining TV shows can start to drag after five to seven minutes, decreasing our enjoyment. Commercials disrupt that adaptation process, so when the show comes back our enjoyment resets.
While there is little evidence that reduced, monastic-like consumption increases happiness, a growing body of research suggests that altering consumption patterns can provide a route to getting more happiness while also spending less.
Leave your hand in cool or warm water and the intensity of the initial sensation will soon subside. This sensory adaptation is like the habituation processes of our emotional system and occurs without any conditioning (i.e. reward or punishment stimuli).
Our surrounding environments have large amounts of information – most of which is innocuous – and habituation is the process by which we filter out what is dangerous from everything else. Habituation has been shown in every species of animal and comes can be handy when it comes to cold winters or unpleasant smells.
Habituation is controlled by the reptilian part of our brain and so happens impulsively without our consciousness when we are not mindful. This has been demonstrated in a study. One group of people was asked to predict how their enjoyment of various products might change over time and the majority expected that their enjoyment would decline – this was the control group. A second group was split in two – half were asked how much they would enjoy a product a day later and the other half of the group how much they would enjoy the same product a week later. Both halves expected the same amount of enjoyment, regardless of the time frame considered, even though most of their peers in the control group believed that enjoyment would decline over time.
While we understand that enjoyment often fades over time, we don’t always apply that knowledge when contemplating a new purchase – especially when we are distracted by advertising and do not remind ourselves. As a result, purchases often provide less enjoyment than we predict.
The power of altering consumption patterns is so powerful that many holidays and even entire religions have been built around it. Festivals of excesses go back before the Bacchanalia to the worship of fertility gods and continue to the modern day in Burning Man, Brazilian Carnival, and Oktoberfest. The significance of these varies, but often there is some motivation to purge urges through habituation. Brazilian Carnival prepares people to fast for Lent while Burning Man focuses to turn away from materialism towards communalism.
On the other end of the spectrum, conservative sects across time from all religions have sought to bar pleasure altogether to avoid any temptation. However, there is little supporting evidence that this accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Aside from religious extremism, secular cultures set consumption standards as well. For example, while modern America values abundance and big purchases (big cars, big homes, big-box stores), the French emphasize the value of little treats – petits plaisirs. This cultural difference is particularly stark at the dinner table, with the French eating less and taking time to savor the taste and texture of their food.
Although the value of purchases typically falls as soon as purchased, losing it can increase the value. We can think of everything we could have done with it – especially if we feel that it was taken from us unfairly. Similarly, many people do not get around to visiting famous landmarks in their own hometowns. Only when we are about to move away, or when out-of-town guests come to visit, do we seek out local sights. The trouble is that when a pleasure activity is always available, we may never get around to doing it, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive source of happiness. Recognizing that an end is near turns the mundane into treats.
Humans – like all animals – are adaptable creatures and research shows that we often get used to whatever we have. The logical extension of this is the Hedonic treadmill, which is the observed tendency to maintain a stationary level of happiness thinking that a profound change is coming. Like chasing rainbows, we can imagine our lives will drastically improve once we buy a specific car, get the next promotion, or get into a romantic relationship. While there might be some improvement, as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it “It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.”
Purchases, like all sources of happiness, become treats and have renewed luster if we consciously reduce amounts and frequencies of specific purchases. The key here is for mindful intervention to alter our inclination from getting as much as we can as often as we want to rewarding ourselves less frequently. From chocolates to wardrobes to romantic escapades, by decreasing the quantity we can not only increase our realized pleasure but also decrease the expenses.
What do you think?