A couple of years ago as I was driving home late at night I tuned into my local radio station and happened to catch an extraordinary interview. The woman talking was eighty-three and she was neither a celebrity nor anyone else with a book to plug. The fact is that she wasn’t well-known at all but the incredible thing about her was that she claimed never to have been outside Southampton. Even more remarkably she said that she had hardly ever ventured beyond Hedge End, the area where she lived. She sounded extremely content with her life and explained that as she had everything she wanted locally, she had never needed to go further afield. “And what’s more,” she added with a proud flourish, “my husband died three years ago, and he never went outside Southampton either.” I didn’t have to think for long to realise that just that week, I’d already been outside the city three times.
By comparison, this story brought to mind a woman that I’d met just a few weeks earlier when I was staying in a South African hotel. She was on holiday and was eager to engage me, a fellow traveller of a similar age, in conversation. Where was I from? Why was I there? What did I think of it all? I answered as best I could and asked her some questions in return. She told me she was Canadian and that she liked to travel. She had been to many countries. This was the fortieth one and during this trip she would be swelling her total further by going to Botswana for a safari in the Okavango Delta. I enthused—I’d heard about the stunning wildlife there particularly the birds. She nodded and leaned in closer. “I’ve been to all these countries,” she confided, “but do you know…I’ve only had one National Geographic moment. It was in Peru. I came out of the lodge where we were staying and saw a flock of flamingoes on Lake Titicaca.”
These two women had clearly had very different experiences of life. And yet one expressed great happiness with her lot and the other was proving rather hard to please.
I like to think that I see the best in things and make the most of my experiences. But actually although it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, I know that I too can be hard to please. The first time I browsed through Netflix I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch. I was paralysed by too much choice and ended up selecting something I didn’t like much, then dozing off and waking up feeling thoroughly grumpy. Since then there have been a few wonderful finds when I’ve been grateful for the astonishing variety available, but I have to admit there has been an awful lot of dissatisfaction. And when I graze through Spotify I click, click, click, rarely listening to the end of the track. It’s far too tempting to move onto something new or to scratch a musical memory itch from years ago. It’s all there for the taking. It’s all so easy. It’s all so different from my music-obsessed teenage years.
In my small town there was just one record shop and the elderly owner had a very scanty knowledge of modern music. She was also a little hard of hearing and several times when I placed an order, the LP that arrived wasn’t what I’d asked for at all. So after a while I gave up on that and resorted to a different tactic. When I had enough saved for a new album, I’d scour the mail-order ads at the back of NME, cut out the order coupon and send it off in the mail together with a postal order. The wait would be tantalising and it was often several weeks before the flat, square, cardboard package would arrive. But when it came it was enormously exciting and I don’t ever remember being disappointed with it.
It’s curious that while so much choice should make our lives better, it often has the opposite effect. Rationally, of course there’s a great deal to celebrate about the fact that many things are now available on demand. But the trouble is that we’re human and so nothing is completely rational and straightforward. When we get used to having things then we take them for granted and that’s when the problems start.
Taking things for granted means that they no longer give us the same degree of pleasure that they once did—it’s what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Our brains get a pleasure hit from novelty whether it’s a new pair of shoes, a new sofa or a new holiday destination but when we get used to things we are liable to be seduced into a search for the next new thing. Unfortunately that pleasure is often short-lived and before we know it we’re on what Daniel Kahneman calls the satisfaction treadmill where we get used to a particular level of satisfaction or happiness and what once felt good enough will no longer do. The net result is that not only do we need the new stuff in order to feed the hedonic adaptation but it has to be even better in order to get the same degree of pleasure. It’s an addiction and the more there is to choose from, the more expectations rise. When the reality falls short we move onto the next big thing that promises it will enhance our lives, change them or perhaps create a National Geographic moment. Perversely, there are likely to be more disappointments in a world with many choices, than in one where there are few.
I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Hedge End woman were to travel to forty-one countries. Would she start to take it all for granted like the National Geographic woman? Not necessarily of course as we are all so different but I wonder whether she would continue to get as much out of her current simple pleasures like watching the birds in her garden and having a natter with neighbours in the corner shop.
I’m not suggesting that there is a moral imperative to appreciate things. It certainly seems a shame not to get the most out of abundance if we are lucky enough to have it, but it is not a duty to do so. So why does it matter if we get ensnared by hedonic adaptation and stumble unwarily onto the satisfaction treadmill? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that it doesn’t seem to make us happy. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has researched this subject extensively and in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he argues that too much choice is actively contributing to rising levels of unhappiness and clinical depression in affluent countries. And secondly, I would argue that it fuels aggressive consumerism which leads to overconsumption, waste and so much else that is threatening the health of the Earth itself.
So if hedonic adaptation is indeed a trap then it’s useful to see it coming so we can take a side-step. Given human nature, we’re unlikely to avoid it altogether but simply being aware that it happens helps in recognising it for the false friend it is. If it whispers to us that the new car, coat, bag, online service, phone, or travel destination is not what we’d hoped for we can tell it to shut up and try to focus on what is good rather than what is less than perfect. We can remember that it counts amongst its allies an army of marketing executives all trying to boost its profile so that we can contribute to their targets and bonuses. We can tell it that an upgraded version probably won’t fix things. And we can remind it that nothing is perfect—even the Okavango Delta. I can be pretty confident that the National Geographic woman would agree with me on that point.