How happy will we be in January?




It is the morning after Christmas, and strewn about the house is the flotsam and jetsam of the holiday: torn-apart wrapping paper and empty boxes, instruction manuals and cookie crumbs, gifts to be put away. We are fortunate to be able to buy presents for the children—though they received none of the extravagant items on their lists, we did give them some of what they asked for—and I know they were delighted with what they received. There was joy! Exclamations of glee! Bright smiles! Just as they promised they would be, they were happy.

Then, by the evening, all the presents had been abandoned, and they now rest in shallow piles, waiting to be absorbed into the thickets of belongings.

Oh, the kids are grateful for the metal detector and the new monogrammed bedding, the Nerf blaster and the mounted unicorn head. But that initial euphoria upon tearing open the shiny paper, which was the culmination of weeks or months of anticipation—Mom, will you just give me a tiny hint??—wore off as quickly as a heroin high.

So why don’t these new things provide permanent happiness? Humans suffer from—or enjoy, depending on your perspective—something called hedonic adaptation, a concept popularized by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein. This adaptive process reduces the internal impact of external stimuli, meaning that we become accustomed to both positive and negative experiences so that the emotional effects are attenuated over time.

In fact, in a 1978 psychological study evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners and recently injured paraplegics compared to the general population. Not surprisingly, the lottery winners were elated and the paraplegics were…not. But amazingly, researchers found that within two months, both groups had returned to their average levels of happiness.

“Man is a pliant animal, a being who gets accustomed to anything.” ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This could explain why so many of us in this materially abundant country, who are raised by and to become consumers, complain of feeling empty or unhappy. We’re seduced by things, given credit cards in order to indulge our desires with immediate gratification, then when the elation we feel naturally subsides, we do what we can for the next fix.

In the case of our children, who are in the want-buy cycle without understanding it, and who don’t yet have the means to indulge their own whims, they must create wish lists for the next holiday. There will be bigger, shinier items on next year’s Christmas list.

Which they will start making in January.

I think this is the year that I will make some changes, try to forestall this adaptation. By emphasizing activities over acquisitions, experiences over effects. By trying to inspire giving instead of indulging wanting.

I don’t know how yet. I just know that I want my children—and others—to be as happy and grateful in January as they were in December.