When we first bought our home, I was enamored by its historic style, the 100-year-old original woodwork, the stained-glass window and the pew-like seats in the tiny reading nook off of our living room. I was grateful for second floor laundry, two bathrooms, a small yard for our dog, and, most of all, for a home that belonged to us. Within the first few weeks of moving in I eagerly painted, decorated, refinished old furniture and cherished our new space.
It’s been almost five years since those early days of home ownership and I no longer sit in the nook to read or take the time to enjoy our old stained-glass window. Within the first six months of enjoying everything about my new home, I lost interest and my renovations have been frozen in time ever since. Now, I more often find myself dreaming about our next home, with a bigger yard, different furniture and maybe even a second dog.
This experience is often mirrored in work environments. What began as an exciting new venture eventually loses its luster and with it, the motivation and drive necessary to achieve optimum success. Many failed initiatives or lackluster performance indicators in business can be traced back to an unengaged, unmotivated workforce. What’s happening here? Why is our enjoyment of positive things so fleeting, leaving us pining for whatever new item/experience/adventure is around the next corner?
As it turns out, psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for some time. They call it hedonic adaptation and it refers to our impressive ability to become accustomed to anything that doesn’t change over time. This means that the same exact thing that once gave us a great deal of pleasure will quickly become normalized so that we no longer derive as much enjoyment from it. Although hedonic adaptation serves the purpose of making us resilient in the face of trials, it can work against our sustainable happiness by minimizing emotions tied to positive events.
A second neurological feature, called negativity bias, is also at play in this struggle to find and maintain happiness. Negativity bias describes our brain’s tendency to preferentially scan for, remember and react to negative experiences. Because our ancestors had to be alert to dangers of all kinds, evolution necessarily wired us to spend more time paying attention to the negative than to the neutral or positive. This feature came in handy when avoiding a run-in with a predator was more important than stopping to smell the roses. For most of us today, however, this adaptation can leave us focused on all that is wrong while rushing through the good stuff without a second thought. It also shapes our memories so that when we think back over our day or week, it is much easier to recall the bad events than it is to remember the good. Combined with hedonic adaptation, this is a recipe for discontent at work and at play.
Thankfully, there are a number of surprisingly simple practices that can significantly increase our overall wellbeing by countering both of these phenomena. One of the most powerful tools is simply savoring the things we enjoy. This process begins by making a conscious effort to look for the positive aspects of an experience and then taking a moment to internalize them, enjoying the subtle positive emotions that arise. Savoring not only immediately lowers stress levels; it also reduces hedonic adaptation and negativity bias. Over time, it can actually change the neural pathways in our brains allowing us to more automatically notice, remember and respond to positive events.
Stressful day at work ahead? Savor that delicious cup of coffee in the morning. Smell the aroma of the beans, and notice the feel and flavor of each sip as it hits your tongue. Enjoy the leaves blowing on the trees during your commute, and take a moment to appreciate the things you enjoy about your job before opening your email or jumping into the pressure of the next meeting.
Along the same lines, researchers have discovered that fostering gratitude can boost our happiness. A gratitude journal is an easy way to build this practice into your daily rhythm. Try beginning each day by writing down three things for which you are grateful. Practiced regularly, this type of habit can increase both physical and mental health by fostering a shift in mindset.
Research has shown that subtle interventions like savoring and gratitude actually have a greater impact on our wellbeing than do circumstances like success, illness or income. While we may not always be able to control the stressors in our life, it is refreshing to know that by forming habits like these we can control our experience of them.
Kate Coleman is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster. She focuses on preventing and managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.