How can deprivation increase your happiness?

To be happy is to live in a perpetual state of enjoyment, and what better way to do that than to continuously experience the things that bring you the most joy! Right? What if I told you that this could actually lead to a decrease in happiness...

How can deprivation increase your happiness?
Photo by Glen Jackson / Unsplash

It feels like the key to happiness is to experience great things all the time. To be happy is to live in a perpetual state of enjoyment, and what better way to do that than to continuously experience the things that bring you the most joy! Right? What if I told you that this could actually lead to a decrease in happiness... This mindset shift might just change your whole approach to happiness and living your best life.

Our brains are super adaptable

Our adaptable brain is what makes us so good at living in our ever-changing world. We have the ability to adapt so quickly to working 70-hour work weeks, looking after 15 children, or living in outer space! Our brains adapt to our environment.

This ability to adapt can be super beneficial when the environment we're in is a negative one. For example, you may have experienced a strong smell in your house and it doesn't take long for your brain to get used to it, after a while you don't even notice it's there anymore. But when someone else enters the room they might find the smell overpowering!

This is a great example of the benefits of having an adaptive brain. The same thing can be said for more complex experiences too. You might find a new job really challenging when you first start, but after a certain period of time your brain adapts and it’s not so challenging anymore.

Everything eventually returns to being just average

Because our brains adapt to everything, this also means that they adapt to the things that make us happy too. Have you noticed your joy for certain things lessening over time the more you experience them? That takeaway place just isn’t as exciting the 20th time you go there, or that song you’ve listened to on repeat doesn’t provide the same feeling it did the first few times you listened to it. Things we do frequently quickly become the norm - they became just average.

Therefore, It’s important to limit things that make us happy, as it lengthens the happiness effect and helps to ensure they don’t become the average, boring, same old...

Don’t wear your new favourite jumper every day, or order that same meal you love every lunchtime, because soon those things won’t provide the same level of enjoyment. But don’t worry! There is a way to avoid this phenomenon without having to go without.

Novelty helps you avoid the downfall of the adaptive brain

The key to overcoming your adaptive brain's tendency to turn good things into average things is novelty. The more frequently you change things up, the more it interrupts the adaptation process.

When you’re experiencing something new, it’s as if your brain was having fun exploring the forest and winding its way through the trees to find the end destination. But the more times you go to that same destination, the path starts to be worn into the ground more and more. If you do the same thing enough times, the path is so deep that you don’t even need to think, you can just follow it on autopilot and you’re there. It takes all the fun and spontaneity out of the experience. But imagine if you wandered through the forest to one destination, and the next day instead of going there again you chose a different destination, and then another, and then another. Then maybe you go back to the first destination a while later, you might not be sure exactly which way you went so you go a slightly different path. It’s going to take A LOT longer to carve a path deep enough to ruin the experience.

This is a metaphor for the synaptic connections in your brain that are created whenever you experience something. Synapses that fire together wire together. The more we do the same type of thing, the stronger the connection becomes, and soon that synaptic connection is so strong that we can do that same thing without even thinking, like we’re on autopilot. Compare the first time you rode a bike or drove a car, to the hundredth time. Each time you drive or ride, the connection gets stronger and stronger.

But think about the feeling when you try something new. Something where your brain has never made the connection before. Sky diving, ice skating, sewing, or making chocolate from scratch. If you’ve never done something before, it can be daunting and a bit scary for your brain, but it can also be exciting. Like you’re winding your way through the trees of a forest trying to find your destination for the first time. You might make a few wrong turns and it’s risky, but the destination is well worth it.

How to introduce novelty into your day

There are many ways to introduce novelty into your day. Routines can be important for certain things but I think it can be helpful to have flexible routines. Maybe you want to do a mindful activity in the morning. This might be mediation one day, going for a walk in nature the next, the day after that it could be journaling. Slightly tweaking the activities we partake in can have a big impact on our enjoyment and experience of these activities.

Maybe if you find yourself always gravitating to the same types of food for lunch or the same spot to sit, try choosing a different meal or location. Next time you go to buy tickets to the movies again, try a comedy night instead!

Change keeps life exciting. It’s how you can create more memorable moments and avoid living on autopilot.

So next time you feel yourself not enjoying the things that normally bring you joy, try changing things up, even ever so slightly, and see if it makes a difference!