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We’re Never Satisfied

OUR LIVES are an endless cycle of desire and dissatisfaction. We might have our eye on a promotion and the accompanying pay raise, or we might hanker after a new car. We muse about how much better our lives will be once we start collecting that larger paycheck and once we drive off the dealership lot in the new sedan.

But even if our wishes come true, they often prove to be a letdown. When we hear about the promotion and we pick up the new car, we’re thrilled. But the thrill soon fades. All too soon, we’re used to our bigger office and fancier car, and we barely notice these things. Instead, we’re onto a new set of desires, confident once again that they’ll transform our lives. It seems we simply aren’t very good at figuring out what will make us happy.

This cycle of desire and dissatisfaction, which psychologists call the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation, makes it tough to achieve permanent increases in our level of happiness. The silver lining: Adaptation may also save us from permanent despair. When we’re passed over for the promotion, we imagine it’ll take years to recover from the disappointment. But soon enough, we’re back to our old selves.

What purpose does this emotional rollercoaster serve? Think back to our nomadic ancestors. They survived because they were never satisfied with what they had and instead constantly strove for more food and better living conditions—and we carry those instincts within us. In the modern world, our innate restlessness can be helpful in our careers and our constant striving can, by itself, be a source of great satisfaction. But if we aren’t careful, this constant striving can also hurt us as consumers and borrowers, as our instincts lead us to spend money in ways that bring little lasting happiness.

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