My husband Peter and I love the sun and the ocean and have made it a tradition to take a beach vacation nearly every year since we met in 1993. After we got married, we explored moving away from Chicago, with weather a key driver of our potential destinations. After visiting both the San Francisco and San Diego areas, a combination of factors (work, friends, familiarity) kept us in Chicago.
And while we love it here, Peter and I occasionally wonder how much happier we’d be in a more scenic and temperate environment. I mean, aren’t people who live in beautiful sunny places happier?
Research conducted by professors David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman, who specialize in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, has found that we Midwesterners—no surprise—are much less satisfied with our weather than our West coast friends and that we do believe Californians are happier (and they believe it too!). But, as it turns out, self-reported happiness levels are actually the same among respondents in both geographies. Schkade and Kahneman explain this as a “focusing illusion,” whereby we attribute exaggerated weight to one highlighted factor when judging an entire situation. So when we imagine sun-drenched palm trees, we assume this must have a positive impact on life satisfaction.
The truth is that changing our external situation, like where we live, is not the key to happiness. Studies have shown that when it comes to our life circumstances, we have an uncanny ability to adjust to positive events. When we get a promotion or pay raise, buy a fancy car or finally lose that excess weight, marry our soul mate or move to sunnier climes, yes, we do feel a short-term boost in wellbeing—but we eventually settle right back into our former, natural state of happiness, our life satisfaction set point if you will. Our situation simply becomes our “new normal.” This is a well-researched phenomenon psychologists call “hedonic adaptation.”
So is there something we can do to stop taking our good fortune for granted? How can we prolong the joy we feel from positive events? One method, researched by psychology professor and happiness expert Sonja Lyubomorsky, is to work at fostering our appreciation. In her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she recommends slowing down hedonic adaptation by learning to “savor” life’s pleasures—and making this a daily practice. So every time you get into your new car, be sure to luxuriate in the plush leather seats; every time you stop for the Starbucks latte your pay raise now allows you, take a moment to relish the frothy richness; and every time you catch yourself taking your partner’s small kindness for granted, notice and let him/her know it.
For my part, I make a point, every time I’m on Lake Shore drive, to marvel at the beauty of the Chicago skyline against the dramatic expanse of Lake Michigan. A gorgeous sight. And while Peter and I may escape our winters for the Caribbean on a regular basis, I truly do believe we will grow old right here, in this wonderful city.
What joys have you let become YOUR new normal? What could YOU do to appreciate life’s pleasures on a daily basis?