Are We Really Happier?
You have been working hard and now you’ve made it. You achieved your career goal. Life is better now, right? You are much happier now that you’ve settled into that new job, your new boss, the big promotion, new car, or the new job title…right?
Not really, no. It’s actually more accurate to say, “I’m not at all happier.” The truth is, psychologically speaking, God designed us to maintain a set point of happiness no matter what experience we encounter. In order to deal with life’s highs and lows, God created in us what has come to be known as hedonic adaption.
First introduced to the world by P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell in their 1971 work “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society”, hedonic adaption states that humans return to a relatively stable level of happiness in spite of major positive or negative life events1.
The New Happiness Norm
This was brought to the mainstream as the hedonic treadmill by Frederick and Lowenstein in their 1999 book “Well Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology.” While studying the effects of prison on inmates, they discovered inmates were able to quickly adapt to their new confinement. Something inside their minds helped them accept their unchangeable circumstances2.
As much as hedonic adaption helps us when times are bad, it also has the same effect when we go through a time of elation, hence this treadmill effect. This is the essence of the saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” If you’ve ever changed companies for better pay or to forever leave your current woes behind, you know this saying for what it is – an idiom. As human beings (perhaps more so as Americans), we tend to believe the situation we are currently in is worse than the one we see from afar.
A few stock investment websites carry something of a warning label about this phenomenon. Take, for example, the following message from Investopedia.com:
“The hedonic treadmill theory explains the oft-held observation that rich people are no happier than poor people, and that those with severe money problems are sometimes quite happy. The theory supports the argument that money does not buy happiness and that the pursuit of money as a way to reach this goal is futile. Good and bad fortunes may temporarily affect how happy a person is, but most people will end up back at their normal level of happiness4. “
Are Christians Happier at Work?
As Christians you might think we have a leg up on this fundamental truth. This shouldn’t be news to us. After all, God’s word actually teaches us not to become allured by wealth and prestige. Jesus explains this as he reveals one aspect of the Parable of the Sower, the part about the thorns:
Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
He says it right there – the deceitfulness of wealth. Money tells us, every day, that if we grab it and hold onto it we will be happier. Of course, this is a lie. It’s downright deceit.
Are you happier now that you have a $75 thousand annual salary? Are you happier now that you make $175 thousand? Nope. Likewise, are you unhappier now because you received a low performance appraisal last year? Are you unhappier now that the Board of Directors swapped you out for a new CEO? Temporarily, maybe. Wait a while and you are sure to level out.
God’s Gift of Resilience
God has created in us resilience. Paul is one shining example of this as we read letters of pure joy he wrote while in prison himself. We are surrounded by men and women within our own fellowship that face remarkable trials and yet maintain a faithful reliance on God and his abundant mercy. They sit next to us in church and sing with all their heart, praising God just as loud as those who haven’t experienced recent suffering.
As Christians working in corporate or entrepreneurial America, we don’t have to make decisions based on fear of loss or desire for wealth. Imagine how balanced and fulfilling your career will be when you go about your day with a servant leadership attitude. Or, consider how you feel when you respond with kindness in the face of adversity, or gentleness when spurned. Think of how we glorify God when we humbly accept praise from a co-worker or give credit to other employees for a big win.
When times are good be happy. When times are bad consider: God has made one as well as the other.
If you never heard of the hedonic pathway and the innate ability to adapt to good and bad, your life and attitude would still return to a set level of happiness. It’s part of who we are and how we were designed. The joy of knowing that God wants us to be at peace in all circumstances makes the journey that much more enjoyable.
Whatever decision lies ahead, base it on what God wants for your life. Consider how your choice impacts those around you. Consider how you can best glorify our King and ask Him to use your life and circumstance to being glory to His name. Then the grass will always be greener where you water it.
Shawn Sommerkamp is a motivational speaker and Executive Coach with 20+ years of Fortune 100 leadership experience. He founded Motivationeer™ to coach Christian professionals how to bring the power of Christ’s word, as the foundation of career success, into corporate and small business America.
- Rosenbloom, Stephanie (August 7, 2010). “But Will It Make You Happy?”. New York Times. Retrieved August 16, 2010.
- Frederick, Shane; Lowenstein, George Kahneman, Daniel (Ed); Diener, Ed (Ed); Schwarz, Norbert (Ed), (1999). Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. , (pp. 302-329). New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation, xii, 593 pp.
- Lutter, Michael, and Eic Nestler. “Journal of Nutrition.” Homeostatic and Hedonic Signals Interact in the Regulation of Food Intake. N.p., 2009. Web. 14 May 2014.
- “Hedonic Treadmill Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014.