December 2009


Anchors away

I’ve done a whole lot of non-fiction reading over the past eight months. Some of it has been psychology-related, books like Stumbling on Happiness and The Paradox of Choice.

(Incidentally, I categorically recommend that you read Stumbling on Happiness. Not only is the material fascinating and highly relevant to basically everyone who happens to be human, but the man is funny! I’ve read many fine nonfiction books but I can’t recall the last one that had me chuckling on nearly every page.)

Humans have a universal tendency to adapt to new situations by — I call it ‘resetting the baseline.’ Circumstances change, and very quickly we accept — whatever it is — as the new normal. Doesn’t matter whether things got better or worse, it very soon ceases to make any emotional difference. Among other things, this is why — within a few months after their respective life-changing events — paraplegics and lottery winners are about equally happy overall.

Part of this process involves something called ‘anchoring’: the tendency to adjust our expectations and reactions based on something we’ve already got in mind. (Putting a ‘retail’ and a ‘sale’ price on a tag makes use of anchoring.) So the paraplegic anchors on the accident, next to which comparatively simple pleasures — like talking to a friend, or eating a nice meal — seem that much better. Meanwhile the lottery winners compare everything to … well, winning the lottery.

The result is what psychologists call a ‘hedonic treadmill’ — the unending search for happiness, which because of our tendency to acclimate, requires more and more extreme efforts.

There’s more in that vein — if you’re interested, go read the books! — but the reason I mention all this here is that I’m curious whether I can use these tendencies to my advantage, emotionally speaking. If advertisers and psychology grad students can manipulate our expectations — and thereby our emotions — by changing our anchors, why can’t we do it for ourselves?

I’m going to try an experiment through the month of January. First, I’m going to limit what I allow myself in an attempt to keep certain ‘treats’ from becoming ordinary. This won’t be a huge change, as I’ve already done this work on a lot of fronts, especially after my income drop last year. But in the areas of food and drink I will have to be extra-mindful, as that’s where I’m personally most likely to hop on the hedonic treadmill.

Second, each day I will make note of at least three things that I’m pleased with or happy about. They can be small things, but they do have to be specific to that day — no general platitudes like ‘I’m glad to have enough food to eat.’ And I’m going to do it via Twitter so I don’t slack. So when you see me start to number certain tweets, you know what’s up.