On the ‘Stretching’ of Happiness

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” ~ Epicurus

Can you think of a time in your life when you were quite content with much less in relation to what you have now? And your past self may have thought, “Once I reach X-level of income, my life will be so much better.” What happened once you reached X-level of income and even surpassed it? Would your “past self” be satisfied with the material wealth that your “current self” possesses? Why or why not?

This is a subject of one of my favorite books, Stumbling on Happiness, in which author Daniel Gilbert uses an entertaining and informative balance of neuro-science, psychology, philosophy and humor to explain how the measure of happiness, and its contextual uniqueness among individuals, evolves (for better or worse). The lessons in the book are framed within something called the Experience-Stretching Hypothesis, which I found to be particularly interesting and useful:

Experience stretching is a bizarre phrase but not a bizarre idea. We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that ‘they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing.’ Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing. It does not mean that those who don’t know what they’re missing are less happy than those who have it…

From what I could gather, the Experience-Stretching Hypothesis is an application of contextual theory, as put forth by Torsten Hagerstrand (Regional Studies, 1984), which says “that the contexts in which human activity takes place—the time, the space, and the place in the sequence of events—are crucial to the nature of that activity.”

In Happiness, Gilbert narrows the geographic, objective perspective of Hagerstrand to apply contextual theory on an individual, subjective level, as “…claims from someone’s point of view—from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experience serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experience…”

Put differently, the perception of any given experience will typically change, or “stretch,” over time with regard to the same experience and the same individual. As Gilbert says, “Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before.” For example, you may feel happy at the beach. But if you add other elements that you love, such as a cigar and a cocktail, the old beach experience just isn’t quite as good anymore.

An immediate example that comes to my mind is the early developmental stages of childhood and the increasing levels of stimulation required to “be happy” as we age. I recall, when my two children were toddlers and were given a gift, they were more interested in the ribbons and wrapping paper than the gift within it. In fact, I seriously doubt that they even knew or cared that there was another experience waiting for them within the package. Surrounding adults would say, “How cute! He actually likes the ribbons and paper more than the toy!” Then another adult would hurry the child along to open the next gift.

Knowingly or not, adults “teach” children to stretch their threshold of happiness to something greater than it needs to be. And, as children ourselves, we also discover that there is always more that we can obtain, and our quest for the next greater experience is henceforth perpetuated. We are “learning” to stretch our experiences every day and thus happiness is only episodic.

As with any pursuit that comes attached with emotion, whether it be the acquisition of wealth, career advancement, an investment decision, or of sexual gratification, the expectation or anticipation of the experience is almost always greater than that of the acquisition or realization of our desire’s object. It’s “the thrill of the chase:” Once we acquire the wealth, the better job, the genius stock trade, or the sexual gratification, we are already looking toward the next greater experience—the proverbial carrot that we may never quite reach.

“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.” ~ Epicurus

It is my unscientific guess that most people who say that they are truly “happy,” would also say that their happiness is not a function of obtaining an end; it is one of finding pleasure in the act of pursuing happiness, which is the means to an end, illustrated in a common metaphor—the journey—with little or no consideration for where the journey will take them.

If we simply become aware of our experience stretching tendencies, we may thereby enable ourselves to slow or even stop the stretching of our happiness, or even lower its threshold, by mindfully seeking contentment and by finding pleasure in the pursuit rather than in some unidentifiable, or even unreachable, reward.

We can be relearn to be happy with the ribbons and the paper.

Kent Thune is blog author of The Financial Philosopher, where this article was first published. You can follow Kent on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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