A man, overwhelmed by the difficult situation in which he lived, went to a rabbi to ask for advice.
– Rabbi, my house is very small. I live with my wife, my children and my parents in-law in a room, all together. We spent the day shouting at each other. I do not know what to do – he said in a desperate tone.
The rabbi asked him if he had a cow. The man answered yes, so he told him to put it inside the house too. The man was perplexed by the rabbi’s advice but he followed it to the letter, so a week later he returned complaining that living together was much more unpleasant than before.
– Take also your two goats in your home – the rabbi told him.
Once again, the man followed the advice, but returned again explaining that the situation had worsened. The rabbi asked him what other animals he had. When the man replied that he only had one dog and some chickens, the rabbi told him to put them in the house too and return the following week.
Baffled, the man returned home and followed the rabbi’s advice but this time, when he came back, he was beside himself.
– This is unbearable! I have to do something or I’ll go crazy. Please help me!
– Listen carefully: take the cow and take it to the stable, take the goats to the corral, leave the dog out of the house and return the chickens to the henhouse. And in a few days come to see me again. When he returned, the man was euphoric.
– Wow, rabbi! Now at home there is much more space, there are only me, my wife, my children and my parents in-law. What an improvement!
There are difficult situations to tolerate. There is no doubt. But most of the time, we are the ones who lose perspective and add more pressure to a reality that is not as bad as we draw it. Sometimes, we need things to get worse to value what we had, as happened to the man in the story. The problem is that it is not always possible to go back. You have to learn hos to change your perspective.
The hedonistic adaptation, or why we do not valorize what we have
Adaptation is a mechanism that allows us to survive even in the most adverse conditions. When our environment changes, we deploy a series of resources that allow us to adapt to the new circumstances. That is the reason why we manage to overcome the death of a beloved person or an important loss.
However, we also adapt to positive events. We adapt to situations that produce pleasure and joy, to the point where we stop valorizing them and they stop producing satisfaction. It is what is known as hedonistic adaptation. With the passage of time, the joy and excitement that aroused some situations disappear, they lose their novelty and we begin to take them for granted.
The problem of hedonistic adaptation is that, if we do not remain attentive, we will fall into an infinite loop of unmet needs because we will always want more. As soon as we reach a goal, it seems insufficient and we enjoy very little of what we have achieved because we already have our sights set on the next one. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte said that “Ambition never stops, not even at the height of greatness.”
That is the reason why many people do not feel satisfied, although they apparently have everything they need to be happy.
Gratitude as a way to achieve happiness
In the parable, the circumstances in which the man lived did not change, what changed radically was his way of seeing the reality. That does not mean resigning and leading a bitter life. Nor does it mean giving up our dreams. It just means being able to see the positive side of the situation in which we find ourselves and feel gratitude.
For centuries, Buddhism has affirmed that gratitude is the key to happiness and inner peace. Now different psychological experiments have proven it. Psychologists from the University of California and Miami, for example, recruited 192 people and divided them into three groups: some were asked to write down those things they had been grateful for throughout the week, others had to write down things that bothered them and others simply had to keep a diary of the positive and negative events that had happened to them.
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude not only reported feeling happier, but they were also more optimistic and satisfied with their lives. As if that were not enough, they also visited the doctor less than the rest of the people.
The power of gratitude is because it turns what we have into enough. Instead of focusing on what we lack and seeing only the negative side of the things, we learn to focus on the positive side and value much more what we have. Although we are aware that there is room for improvement, we are able to see life from a more positive perspective that helps us to tolerate better what bothers us.
This change of perspective does not lead to stagnation but allows us to live better the life we have, until we can make the changes we want. That means pursuing your goals but not subordinate your life to them and, above all, not letting your happiness depend on an elusive future.
McCullough, M. E. & Emmons, R. A. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 84(2): 377–389.