His dream materialised into a beautiful double-storey ten rooms house, a swimming pool and an enviable view of the lake and mountains.
For the first few weeks, he beamed with delight. But soon the cheerfulness disappeared, and six months later he was unhappier than ever.
As we now know, the happiness effect evaporates after a few months.
This new house was no longer his dream. “I come home from work, open the door and…. nothing.”
I feel as indifferent about the new house as I did about my small old house I had in the city.
To make things worse, the poor guy now faced a one-hour commute twice a day to and back from work.
This may sound tolerable, but studies show that commuting by car represents a major source of discontent and stress, and people hardly ever get used to it.
In other words, whoever has no innate affinity for commuting will suffer every day, twice a day.
Anyhow, the moral of the story is that the dream double-storey house had an overall negative effect on my friend’s happiness.
This is similar to a people who move from a small economical car to buy an expensive SUV and struggle to maintain it, end up getting stuck somewhere because of petrol.
You are happy that you are able to drive an expensive car that everyone can see, but deep down you are unhappy because you cannot afford to maintain it.
Many other fare no better: People who change or progress in their careers are, in terms of happiness, right back where they started after around three months.
The same goes for people who buy the latest Porsche.
Science calls this effect the hedonic treadmill: we work hard, advance and are able to afford more and nicer things, and yet this does not make us any happier.
So how do negative events affect us, say, a spinal cord injury or the loss of a friend?
Here, we also overestimate the duration and intensity of future emotions. For example, when a relationship ends it feels like life will never be the same.
The afflicted are completely convinced that they will never again experience joy, but after three or so months they are back on the dating scene.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew exactly how happy a new car, career or relationship would make us?
Well, this is doable in part.
Use these scientifically rubber-stamped pointers to make better, brighter decisions:
1] Avoid negative things that you cannot grow accustomed to, such as commuting, noise or chronic stress
2] Expect only short-term happiness from material things, such as cars, house, lottery winnings, bonuses and prizes
3] Aim for as much free time and autonomy as possible, since long-lasting positive effects generally come from what you actively do.
4] Follow you passions even if you must forfeit a portion of your income for them.
5] Invest in friendships. For most people, professional status achieves long-lasting happiness, as long as they don’t change peer groups at the same time. In other words, if you ascend to a CEO role and fraternise only with other executives, the effect fizzles out.
Be careful what you wish for not only because you might get it, but because it might make you happy in the short term, and unhappy in the long term. Newness fades.