Health @ Work

How to stay happy at work (and home)

The happiness we experience from positive events in our lives—a new job, a new partner or buying a new house—tends to diminish over time, making the search for new sources of happiness never ending.  

The process is known in psychiatry lingo as "hedonic adaptation"—we gradually adjust to positive changes, so much so that we don’t feel their positive effects on us for long.

Hedonic adaptation is what leads many people to get bored or unhappy with their jobs, their partners, their cars and other things in their lives that once brought them pleasure. It also leads people to seek out new sources of happiness, perhaps never fully appreciating the ones they had.  

But new research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, points to ways to hold onto your newfound happiness for longer.

In the study, researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of California at Riverside surveyed nearly 500 people about their happiness. Six weeks later participants described a recent positive change in their lives that had brought them happiness. Six weeks after that, the researchers evaluated whether that positive change still made them happy.  For most people, it didn’t, though for a few it did. The psychologists then applied (and confirmed) their happiness model for predicting whose happiness boost had lasted.

Here are the main points of their happiness model:

Recognize your quest for more and better.  In the study, for example, “The majority got used to the change that had made them happy in the first place,” said Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri. “They stopped being happy because they kept wanting more and raising their standards,” he added.

Appreciate what you have. Some people were able to appreciate what they had rather than looking at what they didn’t have—sort of looking at the glass half full rather than half empty. These were the ones who were happier in the long term.  

Create new experiences. An important piece of appreciating what you have is finding new, positive ways of experiencing it.  Most people in the study stopped having fresh positive experiences with their new partner or their new job, for example. That lowered their level of enjoyment they derived from it. Those who stayed happy tended to look for new experiences within the change.  At work, that could mean looking for new projects or simply going to lunch with different people.  With a partner, it could mean doing or learning something new together.

Don’t find happiness in purchases. Though you can get a boost of happiness from a new purchase, it’s usually very short lived, largely because most purchases don’t keep on providing varied positive experiences.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.