The Happiness Trap: Why You’re Never Satisfied and How to Break the Cycle

You keep working and working — slogging through the doldrums of day-to-day life, repressing your desires for pleasure — looking forward to the day when it all pays off. The moment when you achieve that elusive state of happiness.

…Or maybe it doesn’t pay off. Maybe the expectations you’ve set — the (arbitrary) milestone you’ve defined as success — will never be reached.

Or maybe when you do reach your goal, that dopamine hit of success is only short-lived. After a few days — or weeks or months — you find yourself desperately seeking that next hit.


Hedonic adaptation is the tendency for humans to quickly adapt to major positive or negative life events or changes and return to their base level of happiness.

As a person achieves more success, expectations and desires rise in tandem. The result is never feeling satisfied — achieving no permanent gain in happiness.

“The joys of loves and triumphs and the sorrows of losses and humiliations fade with time.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky

After a significant life event, hedonic adaption occurs as a result of cognitive changes. These changes can include a change in values, goals, attention or interpretation of a situation.

For example, after making your first million dollars, a number you had previously thought was significant, you might start thinking one million dollars is really not all that much in the grand scheme of things.

The outcome is that no matter how pleasurable — or how disappointing — a situation is, we return to a happiness “set point.”

A happiness set point is where humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment.

According to Alex Lickerman M.D.,

“[One’s happiness set point] is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time.”

The troubling conclusion that presents itself as a result of understanding hedonic adaption, is that there may be a formidable barrier to raising happiness over the long-term.

Hedonic adaption theory shows that positive and negative events do have an impact on how we feel for short periods of time, but not over the long-term.

It helps explain why earning a $75k annual salary is pretty great compared to earning minimum wage, but compared to your friend earning $250k, is not so satisfying.

It helps explain why when people are unable to eat at five-star restaurants, they get used to cooking at home, and actually seem to be just as happy as the people eating at the five-star restaurants.

It helps explain why when you quit your job to work on a startup, it feels amazing at first, until you’re overcome the stress of needing to make ends meet. And then when you’re forced to take a job again after your startup doesn’t work out, you’re not overcome with crippling depression. At first, compared to your life of freedom and unlimited potential, employment seems dull and defeating. But in time, you get used to it.

Give Up?

“Very frequently we hear of great sages discussing the pursuit of happiness as futile and nonsensical, putting happiness in line with all other worldly pursuits; temporary in nature and therefore impermanent and unnecessary, unable to add to our true, authentic happiness.” — Kulraj

If accomplishments and successes — money, fame, love — won’t make you happier over the long-term, does that mean there’s no sense working towards them?

Should we just set low expectations for ourselves? Diminish all hope? Squash our own dreams and desires? Let ourselves fail?

By setting realistic expectations, and gaining a true perception of your realities, hedonic adaption can actually be an empowering reminder.

The Comparison Fallacy

Given that ever-increasing expectations leads to perpetual dissatisfaction, decreasing expectations seems like a logical strategy. However, if you simply decrease your expectations without living up to your standards, you’re in a subtle state of underachievement.

The 2016 Presidential Election — an omnipresent thought across of the minds of Americans right now—provides a great illustration of how making comparisons rather than objective evaluations can lead us astray.

The eve of the election makes us think not only about who the best candidate is, but about “the system” as a whole.

The “hedonically-adapated” person — with high expectations — is unhappy with both candidates. Furthermore, he thinks we shouldn’t have political rulers at all. “Democracy is just the majority rule.” In comparison to freedom, democracy sounds inhumane. He’s not satisfied, even though he has it better than people in many other parts of the world and throughout history.

Meanwhile, the person with lower — perhaps more reasonable (at least at first consideration)— expectations is happy to be able to vote on who rules them. “I know the system is terrible, but at least we’re able to vote.” In comparison to dictatorship, democracy sounds great.

Arguments can be made for both cases. It simply depends on your base state.

Democracy may seem great compared to dictatorship — and Hillary may seem great compared to Trump. Just like how the $20 insurance plan may seem like a drop in the bucket when you’re already spending $300 on a pair of headphones, while $20 for a lunch that you usually only spend $10 on, will seem like a huge rip off. Or how making $75k seems great compared to making minimum wage, but not to making $250k.

Because something is comparably worse doesn’t mean that it is unacceptable. Similarly, because something is comparably better does not necessarily mean that it is right.

Just like expecting less and actually feeling fulfilled (for once) is not always a poor strategy, the desire for more is not always hedonistic. Sometimes dissatisfaction is valid.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Solely decreasing your expectations ensures that you will never reach your full potential. The key is not simply adapting to arbitrary outcomes, but adapting to truth. The truth about your personal preferences, values, goals and abilities.

When you expect less from those around you, you are subtly holding them in contempt. It may be packaged as an act of compassion — however you are actually treating them as less than they are. You strip them of the ability to live to their full potential.

Similarly, when you don’t expect yourself to live to your potential, you ensure that you won’t. However it’s defining your potential where things get interesting.

How to Increase Your Happiness “Set Point”

If happiness is the difference between expectations and reality, you are faced with two options: lower your expectations or increase your reality.

As I’ve made the case for above, lowering your expectations and improving your reality are not end all solutions. Lowering expectations is demoralizing while continually chasing outcomes fails to provide fulfillment over the long-term.

However, not all hope is lost. I propose two strategies (and six ways to implement them)…

  • Set realistic expectations based on your real abilities.
  • Increase your perception of reality by combatting irrational thinking.

Setting Realistic Expectations Through Self-Awareness

1. Gain self-awareness.

Many millennials have been coddled into thinking they’re god’s gift to earth. We’ve read self-help books that lend us to believe we can do anything we set out mind to. And we haven’t been exposed to the realities of our genetic abilities.

I’m guilty of it too. I’ve taken on overly ambitious projects that I was not capable of executing on and failed miserably.

We still don’t have an effective way to measure one’s abilities. High school diplomas and college degrees have proven insufficient indicators of future success or happiness. IQ, while not perfect, has shown to be correlated with career success. However it’s actually illegal to test for in a job interview. It’s very taboo to talk about genetic abilities because we don’t want to hurt feelings.

By gaining self-awareness, and matching your expectations to be in line those realities, you‘re adapting to the right set point.

This might entail decreasing one’s expectations and desires. Decreasing expectations is hard to grapple with. It’s not something anyone has ever been willing to tell us we need to do.

Only after having realistic expectations is it worth working on improving outcomes. By increasing your reality, to realistic expectations, you reach your potential.

Instead of desperately seeking realities that aren’t achievable, or that once achieved are only short lived dopamine hits, you are at equilibrium.

2. Accept reality.

You don’t need to have opinions about everything — particularly if they’re negative. What matters most is not your opinion. What matters most is reality.

Our government is a Republic. You need to make money to survive and live comfortably. You may have weaknesses in necessary skillets. The list goes on.

Trying to deny reality is futile. Many things are outside of your control. Wishing and hoping things were different only leads to anxiety.

3. Pursue ends goals.

Means goals are the tangible outcomes we want to achieve — such as $x million or a given job title. Means goals are often only a means to a larger, more fulfilling end goal.

Ends goals are our ultimate destinations. Ends goals reflect one’s personal values and are often feelings.

My ends goals are to be happy, healthy, and helpful. Until means goal are achieved, you’re in a constant state of underachievement. However I can achieve my ends goals regardless of tangible outcomes or any other factors outside of my control. But they do require ongoing execution.

By pursuing an ongoing purpose, while gaining happiness from within, I feel at equilibrium.

Increasing Your Perception of Reality

If you think you’re in danger, you will feel great anxiety, even if you are actually safe. If you achieve “success” — however that my be defined for you — but you don’t realize you have, or you hedonically adapt to it quickly, you will still feel unfulfilled.

One key adaptation thwarting element is attention. Once we stop paying attention to an event — appreciating a positive event or ruminating on a negative event — we have adapted.

Here are two ways to increase your perception of reality:

1. Celebrate wins — even small wins.

Celebrating wins reinforces your attention on the positive.

For something big, like gaining a new client or a new job — treat yourself to a steak dinner.

For something small, like a client giving positive feedback — grab some dessert.

2. Express gratitude.

Expressing gratitude means appreciating what you already have.

I express gratitude every morning. It can be for something small, like my coffee, or something large, like my family.

3. Affirm confidence.

One of my favorite phrases is “I’ll figure it out.” I repeat to myself to remind me that no matter what comes my way, I have the ability to deal with it, and that in the end, I’ll be fine. Knowing that I’ll adapt empowers me to take action without fear and increases my base state of confidence.

With the six practices above:

  • I know what I can realistically achieve.
  • I’m unafraid of negative outcomes and empowered to take action.
  • The bar is not set too high so that I will never be happy.
  • The bar is not set too low so that I do not feel fulfilled.
  • I make better and more practical decisions.
  • I’m happy and fulfilled — My base state happiness and self-esteem is high.

Matching Your Expectations to Reality.

Even if you’ve spent your whole life pursuing something, once you get it, you adapt to the new reality. It becomes the new base state. Once it’s the base state, we’re susceptible to the same feelings of inadequacy or underachievement that we had before. It doesn’t matter that we worked for decades to get there —once we’ve got it, it’s not exciting anymore.

It may make achievement seeking seem inconsequential. If you challenge yourself significantly, and bank your happiness on achieving a given outcome, you’re in a state of failure until you achieve it. And then when you finally do achieve it, the feeling of happiness is only short-lived, as you quickly move on to striving for the next milestone.

However, if you don’t challenge yourself enough, you’ll inevitably feel unfulfilled. When you hold low expectations for yourself, you are thinking less of yourself and selling yourself short.

My approach has been to gain self-awareness, maximize my perception of reality, and then take action without desperately seeking validation that will only be short-lived, or having my happiness dependent on outcomes.

Don’t live by comparisons. Live by what’s true. Let knowing that you’ll adapt be empowering.


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