I loves me some Downton Abbey, Lord knows, but I’m downright obsessed with Mad Men. The opening theme. Cocktail culture. Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Sinful, sexy, scoundrelly Don. Joan. Oh yes, everything Joan. The swanky Park Avenue high-rise that takes my breath away. Pete’s red couch. Swoon.
As we count down to the season 6 premiere (Sunday, April 7th at 9pm on AMC), there’s a teaser circulating that features a compilation of clips from season 5. Most intriguing is Don’s voiceover— one of his most memorable lines from last season—”What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Wow. Fascinating truth.
Circumstantial Happiness is Fleeting
Don’s describing what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” the tendency to become accustomed to most life changes, particularly positive experiences. Often, people imagine that if only they could get married…or buy a bigger house…or get into a particular college…or have a baby…or get a raise or a new job or a new iPhone…whatever, that it would be the panacea. They’d finally attain sustained happiness.
Studies show, however, that happiness tied to achieving a life change or acquiring something material is, as Don shrewdly observes, fleeting (Suh et al., 1996). In other words, the happy high associated with the joys and triumphs of life wears off with time, sometimes within days or weeks, sometimes it lasts a bit longer. Newlyweds, for instance, get a big boost of happiness that lasts, on average, about two years (Lucas et al., 2003). But eventually people “reset” after they experience positive events and circumstances, returning to their genetically determined happiness baseline (Silver, 1982).
Think about how this works in your own life. Say you set a goal to lose 15 pounds. Are you happy when you achieve your weight loss goal? Or like so many folks, do you get there and then instantly feel like, “Meh, that didn’t change my life so much…maybe I’d be happy if I dropped five or ten more,” immediately setting your sights ahead to something greater? Or perhaps you’ve finally managed to buy a home in a neighborhood you’ve always loved, but shortly after you move in, you notice that everyone else in the neighborhood drives a nicer car or has a beautiful in-ground pool. Are you right back on the aspirational treadmill because other people have things that you don’t? If this sounds familiar, you can see why hedonic adaptation is so common and why circumstantial happiness can fade so quickly.
Making Happiness Last
The thrill of victory, the ecstasy of falling in love, the pleasure of that “new car smell” lessens with time. So how can you hinder hedonic adaptation and slow the happiness effect from fading?
Here are 7 ways to cultivate lasting happiness:
1. Practice gratitude. When you notice or appreciate the good things in your life and consider them to be blessings, you’re practicing gratitude. Pausing to appreciate the good things you’ve got going on—as opposed to focusing on what you could potentially have or what other people have—helps you from taking things for granted.
2. Savor the present. Stop looking ahead to what could be or what the next step is and relish the here-and-now. Enjoy and invest yourself in the moment. Celebrate!
3. Have a positive and optimistic perspective. Focus on the good things in yourself, in others, and in your life circumstances. Don’t dwell on all the things that could go wrong. Look for the silver linings in everything. Recognize that it’s okay not to be perfect.
4. Don’t overthink your successes and triumphs. When you try to analyze or make sense of why something happened, you risk sucking all the joy out of it. Instead, savor your good fortune rather than trying to explain it.
5. Be kind and helpful. Studies have shown that being philanthropic stimulates two areas of the brain associated with pleasure, euphoria, trust and cooperation (Moll et al., 2006). People who regularly practice a variety of kind acts benefit from increased well-being.
6. Cultivate and nurture interpersonal relationships. Taking the time to strengthen, nourish and enjoy marriage and friendships builds social bonds as well as self-esteem. Interestingly, research shows that flourishing relationships are characterized by how someone reacts to a friend’s good news rather than their disappointments or losses. Genuinely appreciating a friend or partner’s triumphs and joys appears to bolster the relationship and intensify the pleasure and satisfaction you get from it.
7. Enjoy the journey on the way to your goal. Sure, there will be struggles and challenges along the road, but instead focus on the new skills you’re developing, new opportunities that have come your way, your personal growth and mastery, new learning you’re acquiring. Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a way of travelling.
Do I believe that Don Draper will make a commitment to doing some of these things and finally attain sustained happiness? I should hope not! After all, what would season 6 be without jarring conflicts, moral dilemmas, uncomfortable issues, haunting memories and traumatic disappointments?
But the rest of us aren’t fictional characters living in situations created with a writer’s pen. We have the capacity to make happiness last for more than a mere moment.
Question: What will you do to create sustained happiness in your life? What do you already do?