In honor of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, my theme for the blog this month is gratitude. As we move deeper into autumn, I can now see more clearly the blessings of summer that I took for granted. And I’ve been humming the refrain from Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi (more recently covered nicely by Counting Crows), “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
It’s hard to continue to appreciate the things that are present in our lives day after day. When I learned about “hedonic adaptation,” I finally understood why this is true. Hedonic adaptation is defined as the tendency to return to a stable level of happiness, regardless of significant positive or negative life changes. The theory is that we each have a happiness “set point” that causes us to maintain a relatively constant level of happiness, regardless of circumstances. This is also called the “hedonic treadmill,” a term that conjures up powerful imagery of constantly running towards things we think will bring greater happiness but always ending up in the same spot. Hedonic adaptation is great news if you’re currently dealing with a bad situation (it’s not going to have the lasting impact on your happiness that you would expect) but alarming if you’re actively pursuing some big change that you think will drastically improve your happiness.
On a smaller scale, it explains why I always think I’ll be happier, get more exercise, and eat better every summer. All those things are true for most of June. But by July, my brain has become accustomed to the beautiful, long, warm summer days, and I hardly even notice them anymore. At that point, you’ll probably even hear me complaining about how humid it is and how I have to spend time every morning watering the outside flowers. Salads with fresh, local greens have become less exciting, and ice cream more enticing.
But predictably, now that those glorious long summer days are gone, I’m actively missing what I took for granted for most of the summer. Fortunately, positive psychology research does have some hopeful suggestions that can help combat hedonic adaptation.
One of these suggestions is to introduce variety. One of the factors believed to influence hedonic adaptation is our tendency to become desensitized to whatever we habitually experience. Long, hot summer days are remarkable after dark, rainy, cool spring days. But after a month, we expect them. Introducing variety can help minimize the effects of desensitization. There’s not much we can do about the weather, but this may be a reason to look forward to whatever rainy days we get, realizing that they help us freshly appreciate the sunny days when they return.
Uneventful everyday routines can also desensitize us. That’s a good reminder that once I’ve shifted into a summer routine, it’s important to occasionally vary my routine (no matter how much I like it) and do something new.
Finally, practicing gratitude is yet another antidote to hedonic adaptation. Deliberately savoring and noting our experiences can prevent them from being taken for granted. This is where I find the daily Examen prayer helps. The Examen is a prayer technique created by St. Ignatius of Loyola to reflect on the day’s events to notice God’s presence and direction. One step in the Examen is to review your day with gratitude – asking for God’s help to recognize the blessings we’ve been given and notice where God has been with us during our day.
When doing this step, I’m always amazed at the things that have already slipped my mind or been taken for granted. Reviewing the day hour by hour helps me recall and savor the things that I might not have fully appreciated at the moment. The Examen doesn’t take much time to do (although it can take longer if you’re inclined to linger and have the time), so I can usually find time to fit it into my day. The hardest part is just remembering to do it.
Although a gratitude practice is useful for anyone, it can be especially helpful as we age. Aging inevitably brings losses that we can’t avoid seeing. But by regularly practicing gratitude for the blessings we continue to have, we can avoid being overwhelmed by what we have lost.
I love hearing about research studies that validate the practical usefulness of some of our prayer traditions. Although the saints didn’t have controlled studies, laboratories, and modern ways of assessing states of mind, they had remarkable insight.
A Closing Prayer
God, Creator of all good things, You have heard us offer many excuses for our ingratitude. We find it easy to see the reminders of what we have lost, but seeing all our blessings requires additional effort. Give us the clarity to look closer at our everyday lives and see what we may take for granted. Help us establish a gratitude practice that brings joy by rediscovering daily blessings we have missed and savoring (once again) the memorable moments. Let emerging research into how our brains work be a reminder of the wisdom in the spiritual practices of our tradition. Help us recommit to practices that were once meaningful, but we’ve now drifted away from doing. Or open our hearts to new practices that may better fit what we need now. Amen.