An important factor in happiness is adaptability. Because we adapt quickly to any improvements, we stop appreciating them and instead take them for granted.
One unenjoyable cure for this “hedonic treadmill” is deprivation. Deny yourself something, and your pleasure in it will be re-activated when the denial stops.
For example, a friend spent some time in Russia. Periodically, the hot water stopped working, for weeks at a time. It was a huge inconvenience, of course, but she said that very few experiences have matched the happiness she felt on the days when the hot water started working again. But now that she’s back in the United States, where her hot water has never failed, she never thinks about it.
Well, I’m experiencing this kind of post-deprivation happiness now. I had a forced deprivation when my beloved New York Society Library closed for two weeks for renovations. Today was my first day back.
It’s easy to take Society Library for granted—after all, I’ve been coming here several times a week for seven years.
But this two weeks have given me a new jolt of pleasure. Ah, the library. Just one block from my house. The open stacks. The quiet computer room (and it is quiet—if you dare have a conversation, or worse, talk on your cell phone, well, it’s not nice to contemplate the consequences…)
I love the freedom to get books that might interest me, without having to commit to buying anything. Today I checked out Kraybill’s The Riddle of Amish Culture; Bender’s Plain and Simple; Swandler’s Out of This World—not sure why I feel like reading about the Amish, but I decided to indulge myself. I also got Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head, which a friend recommended, and Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which was featured in Slightly Foxed.
When Shakespeare wrote, “And yet not cloy thy lips with loathed satiety/But rather famish them amid their plenty…” he anticipated the arguments made by Barry Schwartz in his recent book, The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz advises: “No matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions…a silk blouse a special treat…it’s a way to make sure that you can continue to experience pleasure.”
It may seem artificial to deprive yourself of something deliberately. But at the very least, the hedonic treadmill argues for keeping indulgences in check. A luxury ceases to be a luxury when you experience it often. And even a modest pleasure can be a luxury, if it’s scarce enough—a pleasure like ordering coffee at a restaurant, or buying a book, or watching TV.
The Big Man and I don’t watch much TV. We record The Shield, Lost, The Sopranos, Entourage, and a few other shows on TiVO and watch them together. (He also watches 24 and Alias, but I don’t.)
Now that we don’t just catch whatever happens to be on at a particular time, TV has become a real treat for us—because we rarely watch, and because it’s always excellent when we do watch. Also, along with deprivation, a key to happiness is anticipation, and now we can really look forward to lying in bed (yes, we watch TV in bed against all advice I’ve ever read) and watching a new episode of something.
I wish I could claim that this pattern was the result of careful happiness-project research, but we just lucked into it.