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The Secrets of Happy People

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Happy people think about things differently than unhappy -- or even averagely happy -- people.

Happy people continue to appreciate life's little pleasures, while other people grow accustomed to such pleasures and lose their appreciation of them. Allow me to explain.

In my first few weeks of graduate school I felt pretty economically vulnerable. I was living on my own for the first time in my life, and was unsure of my finances. I was fortunate to have a scholarship, but the money hadn't come in yet, so I was careful not to spend money needlessly for fear of overextending myself.

During these first weeks on my own I remember throwing economic caution to the wind and indulging in a chocolate bar. It was delicious. The creamy cocoa in my mouth was made even more scrumptious by the knowledge that I might need to limit even these minor indulgences as I gained a better sense of my financial exposure.

It turned out I'd severely exaggerated the need to cut costs. A few weeks after my scholarship came in, I quickly learned that I could pay my rent, buy plenty of non-pasta-based foods, and even go out for dinner on occasion. And I could buy as many chocolate bars as I wanted. And I did. I bought lots and many varieties.

Most of the time I ate them without much thought. In fact, I'd often half-consciously find a wrapper in my hand without any real memory of eating a chocolaty treat. The ease with which I could afford chocolate bars had caused me to appreciate and savour them less. I came to think of this phenomenon as the cost of convenience -- a failure to appreciate things when they can be had too easily.

In psychological terms, I'd adapted to my circumstances. Psychologists would say I 'habituated' to being able to afford chocolate bars. Generally speaking, adaptation serves a valuable purpose. Just imagine if we didn't adapt to the pain of being jilted by a lover. If we didn't adapt to the stressors produced by the tyrannical despots known as babies. Or if we didn't adapt to the grief associated with the loss of loved ones.

Adaptation has benefits, but it also has costs. The cost is that in the same way we adapt to negative experiences, we adapt to positive experiences, like falling in love, travelling to exotic locations, and eating chocolate bars. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation.

One of the main secrets of happy people is that they're able to minimize hedonic adaptation and continue to savour the pleasures life has to offer. How do they do this? Before considering the science, consider this parable from religious folklore.

In ancient times, a man went to his local shaman seeking guidance to deal with his unhappy wife. The man explained his wife complained incessantly their house was too small. The shaman counseled the man to bring a chicken into the house and keep it there. The man did as he was told.

A few days later he returned to the shaman to say his wife was still complaining. The shaman told the weary man to bring two sheep into the house and keep them there. The man obliged.

Several days later the man returned complaining the strategy wasn't effective. His wife was still upset that the house was too small. The shaman counselled the man to bring three goats into the house and keep them there. The man left confused but did as he was told.

The next day the man returned to the shaman to say there was no room for any more animals in his house and his wife was ready to leave him. He asked the shaman what else he could possibly do to make his wife feel their house was large enough. The shaman replied, "Let the animals out."

In this story, the wife had adapted to the size of her home and didn't appreciate the space it had to offer. By forcing her to experience crowded living quarters the shaman helped her appreciate the space she had again, just as she likely did when they first moved into the house.

Psychologically, appreciation is the opposite of adaptation. Appreciation involves making an effort to recognize that the object of your appreciation is special, valuable, and can potentially be lost.

Recent studies demonstrate how avoiding hedonic adaptation can increase happiness. In 2012, Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky showed that when people make a continued effort to appreciate a positive change in their lives their happiness is enhanced because it curbs their desire for more of the change. Put another way, appreciation keeps them happy with their current state of affairs by curtailing rising aspirations.

In 2013, Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn asked people to avoid chocolate for one week. The goal was to reduce the extent to which they would take chocolate for granted and fail to appreciate it. Compared to people who were able to eat chocolate throughout the week, those who didn't eat chocolate experienced more happiness when they finally ate another piece. Their happiness increased because they tended to savour and appreciate the experience more.

At my house we only recently entered the modern age. Two weeks ago I bought my first wide-screen television...a 55-incher! Until last month I'd been watching a 32-inch old-style square TV that I'd bought after graduate school.

I love the new TV. The images are sharp. The sound is crisp. I particularly like how when I watch hockey games it feels like I'm in the arena.

However, I know that to sustain the enthusiasm I have for this TV, I must continue to watch shows on the old one occasionally. It will help me appreciate and savour the advanced technology and I'll remain happy with my purchase.

I also appreciate the attractiveness of the new couch I sit on when watching my fancy TV... especially now that I've wrecked it with chocolate stains!

Dr. Jamie Gruman will speak at the GoodLife Fitness Health & Wellness Leadership Summit in Toronto on November 27, 2013.

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