This is the question posed by the most popular class ever taught at Yale University. Technically, the course name is Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life. I’ve attended an abbreviated one-hour version of this class for the past two years, led by the professor of this course, Laurie Santos, and it’s worth sharing a few insights with you.
The premise is that most of us in the developed world, certainly most of you reading this blog, and for sure the students at Yale, live in a relatively abundant world. Economic prosperity, access to health care, affluence, and safe living conditions, compared to the 85% of the world who don’t get to enjoy the benefits most of us take for granted.
What is at the root of this paradox? Basically, Ms. Santos tells us that our “dumb brains” get used to things like clean water, comfortable living conditions, controlled climates, three meals a day, a nice car, and all of the other aspects of our lives that most people around the world consider a luxury. The good stuff doesn’t feel good after a short period of time. We just get used to it.
This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation.
We all know that too often we get used to something and take it for granted. It’s because we think in context, not absolutes. Studies of Olympic bronze medal winners reveal they are a lot happier than silver medal winners because they didn’t just miss the gold by a millisecond, they are happy to have won a medal, unlike the silver medalists who just missed winning the gold.
Our dumb brains trick us every day. Even Ms. Santos said she talks more about that one negative coworker versus all of the other amazing professors she works with at Yale. We get used to the good, take it for granted, and then let the negative overtake our dumb brains to the detriment of our own best interests and happiness.
Grateful people are happier people.
Here are a few things I learned we can do to redirect our dumb brains:
1. Hack your feed. You decide what photoshopped pictures you look at, whose socially augmented, glamorous life you let into your life each day. Cut out the fake comparisons and pick new reference points for your life.
2. Imagine every morning if all of the good things in your life went away. The lyrics from an old song say it best, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”
3. Write a letter of gratitude to five people in your life. Maybe just start with an email or a text. One of my favorite stories I’ve heard is from the former CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi. She wrote a hand-written letter to the parents of her top executives telling them what an amazing impact their son or daughter was having on so many peoples’ lives. Genius.
4. Invest in experiences not things. Hedonic adaptation doesn’t kick in with something you don’t have time to get used to. A trip to the art museum, a great concert, an amazing vacation, and a life-changing event all have the ability to enrich your life without giving the dumb brain a chance to take these fleeting experiences for granted.
5. Before you go to bed each night, write down the 3-5 best things that happened today for which you are grateful.
For me, learning the phrase hedonic adaptation helps me remember what we all know, that we can get used to anything, and in turn often take it for granted, something to which we are entitled.
At this very moment, what are you most grateful for? For me, it’s that this post sparks a moment of gratitude for you.