Category Archives: Philosophy

Thoughtful mundane.

How Europe Conquered the World

How Europe Conquered the World

The Spoils of a Single-Minded Focus on War

Between 1492 and 1914, Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe, establishing colonies and spreading their influence across every inhabited continent. This was not inevitable. In fact, for decades, historians, social scientists, and biologists have wondered: Why and how did Europe rise to the top, even when societies in Asia and the Middle East were far more advanced?

So far, satisfactory answers have been elusive. But this question is of the utmost importance given that Europe’s power determined everything from who ran theslave trade to who grew rich or remained mired in poverty.

One might think the reasons for Europe’s dominance obvious: the Europeans were the first to industrialize, and they were immune to the diseases, such as smallpox, that devastated indigenous populations. But the latter reason alone cannot explain the conquest of the Americas, since many young Native American warriors survived the epidemics. And it fails to explain Europe’s colonization of India, since the Indians had similar immunity. Industrialization also falls short as an explanation: the Europeans had taken control of more than 35 percent of the planet even before they began to industrialize. Of course, the lead Europeans took in developing the technology of guns, armed ships, and fortifications was critical. But all the other major civilizations in Asia had the same gunpowder technology, and many of them also fought with guns.

So what did contribute to Europe’s success? Mostly, it derived from the incentives that political leaders faced in Europe—incentives that drove them not just to make war, but also to spend huge sums on it. Yes, the European monarchs built palaces, but even the huge Chateau at Versailles cost King Louis XIV less than two percent of his tax revenue. The rest went to fighting wars. He and the other kings in Europe had been raised since childhood to pursue glory on the battlefield, yet they bore none of the costs involved—not even the risk of losing their thrones after a defeat. Leaders elsewhere faced radically different incentives,, which kept many of them militarily weak. In China, for example, emperors were encouraged to keep taxes low and to attend to people’s livelihoods rather than to pursue the sort of military glory that obsessed European kings.

British Empire in India

A painting—Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English, by Vasily Vereshchagin c. 1884—depicting the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

For this and a variety of other reasons, leaders outside of Europe could not match Europe’s innovations in warfare innovation. The huge sums of money showered on fighting in Europe gave military leaders the flexibility to buy new weapons and battleships and try out new tactics, fortifications, and methods of supply. In the process, they learned from their mistakes and improved their technologies. And because European countries were small and geographically close, they could easily learn from their rivals’ errors and copy their improvements. When the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus constructed one of the earliest two-decked gunships in 1628, for example, it sank shortly after setting sail. But the Swedish navy and other navies across Europe swiftly learned from this failure, and by the eighteenth century they were building warships with two or more gun decks that were not only stable, but also had a longer range and were more maneuverable than seventeenth-century warships.

Without a single-minded focus on war and the extraordinary ability to tax, there may never have been any European empires.

Outside of Europe, political and military conditions kept war innovations, particularly new gunpowder technology, from being advanced at the same relentless pace. China, for instance, had far less tax revenue to spend on the military than the Europeans did. In the late eighteenth century, per-capita taxes were 15 times higher in France than in China, and 40 times higher in England, and much of the tax money China did collect went not toward new forms of fighting but to aid archers on horseback, who were far more effective than musketeers in fighting the nomads who had long been China’s major enemy. What’s more, China was often the dominant power in East Asia, so fewer rivals dared to challenge it, which meant it had little incentive to spend heavily on its military. As a result, there was simply less use for gunpowder weapons in East Asia.

Europe, by contrast, had no such dominant power. And once the Western Europeans took the lead in pushing gunpowder technology forward, it was hard for China to catch up; the center of progress was a continent away.

Europe’s military lead continued into the nineteenth century. Tax revenues rose as Europe industrialized, and the innovations from the Industrial Revolution—applied science and engineering—made it possible for Europeans to improve their technology not just by waging war, but also by conducting research, which magnified what the Europeans learned on the battlefield.

By 1914, Europe had not only achieved global military dominance, it also had powerful states that could raise huge sums of tax revenue to fund wars. In Franceand Germany, real per-capita tax revenue had increased 15 fold or more over the previous two centuries. That enormous capacity to tax went well beyond what can be explained by the higher per capita incomes that industrialization brought to Europe. It was the result of the same kind of learning  that advanced the gunpowder technology. The only difference was that here the learning involved economics rather than military technology, and the rewards went to political leaders who successfully bargained with the elites to boost tax revenues. The leaders then used the added tax revenue to expand and equip their armies and navies.

Map of European Empires

A map of world empires and colonies in 1920.

Europe’s ability to tax was no small achievement. China could not raise equivalent tax revenues, even in the nineteenth century. And countries in sub-Saharan Africa today still lack the basic capacity to tax, which keeps them from providing security and other basic public goods to their citizens.

So what did contribute to Europe’s success? Mostly, it derived from the incentives that political leaders faced in Europe—incentives that drove them not just to make war, but also to spend huge sums on it.

Europe had yet another advantage as well: its entrepreneurs were free to use gunpowder technology to mount expeditions of conquest, colonization, and militarized trade. Although they usually needed official permission to launch a voyage, entrepreneurs were often encouraged by authorities eager to find riches abroad. And they had no trouble acquiring weapons or finding battle-hardened veterans to train military novices who joined their undertakings. By the seventeenth century, such private expeditions had spawned gigantic enterprises that raised huge sums on Europe’s burgeoning capital markets to finance ventures abroad, enterprises such as the Dutch East India Company, which was not only a private arm of Dutch foreign policy, but also the first business to issue tradable shares of stock.

A final difference between Europe and the rest of the world lies in political history. From 221 B.C. onward, China, more often than not, was unified in a large empire. The Chinese empire soon developed a centralized bureaucracy that drew local elites into government service and gave them a stake in the empire’s survival. The rewards of government service helped hold the empire together, and as long as the empire was strong and unified, other East Asian powers hesitated to attack it. This meant that China had little incentive to seek out new enemies or opportunities.

Western Europe, by contrast, experienced no such lasting unification after the collapse of the Roman Empire. What it endured instead were centuries of warfare by bands of warriors whose leaders resembled modern-day warlords. The incessant fighting groomed leaders who were victorious in war. The conflict also generated enduring enmities between leaders and their followers, enmities that eventually hardened into lasting political borders. It was such ill will—and not Europe’s physical geography—that kept any single leader from ever uniting Western Europe in the sort of durable empire that prevailed for centuries in China. In the long run, the winners in Western Europe were the military leaders who learned how to impose heavy taxes to fund their fighting, and as a result, Europe ended up with kings who spent pharaonic sums on warfare and who had, in the words of Machiavelli, “no object, thought, or profession but war.”

Without a single-minded focus on war and the extraordinary ability to tax, there may never have been any European empires. The wars and the taxes lavished on them gave the Europeans an enormous lead in military technology. This enabled their conquests, and allowed them to keep native populations under control without stationing large numbers of European troops abroad. Without such advantages, the Europeans might have grown rich anyway—and perhaps even industrialized early—but they would not have dominated the world in 1914.

Source: Foreign affairs (

Theories of Motivation


At a simple level, it seems obvious that people do things, such as go to work, in order to get stuff they want and to avoid stuff they don’t want.

Why exactly they want what they do and don’t want what they don’t is still something a mystery. It’s a black box and it hasn’t been fully penetrated.

Overall, the basic perspective on motivation looks something like this:

In other words, you have certain needs or wants (these terms will be used interchangeably), and this causes you to do certain things (behavior), which satisfy those needs (satisfaction), and this can then change which needs/wants are primary (either intensifying certain ones, or allowing you to move on to other ones).

A variation on this model, particularly appropriate from an experimenter’s or manager’s point of view, would be to add a box labeled “reward” between “behavior” and “satisfaction”. So that subjects (or employees), who have certain needs do certain things (behavior), which then get them rewards set up by the experimenter or manager (such as raises or bonuses), which satisfy the needs, and so on.

Classifying Needs

People seem to have different wants. This is fortunate, because in markets this creates the very desirable situation where, because you value stuff that I have but you don’t, and I value stuff that you have that I don’t, we can trade in such a way that we are both happier as a result.

But it also means we need to try to get a handle on the whole variety of needs and who has them in order to begin to understand how to design organizations that maximize productivity.

Part of what a theory of motivation tries to do is explain and predict who has which wants. This turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

Many theories posit a hierarchy of needs, in which the needs at the bottom are the most urgent and need to be satisfied before attention can be paid to the others.


Maslow’s hierarchy of need categories is the most famous example:


Specific examples of these types are given below, in both the work and home context. (Some of the instances, like “education” are actually satisfiers of the need.)

Need Home Job
self-actualization education, religion, hobbies, personal growth training, advancement, growth, creativity
esteem approval of family, friends, community recognition, high status, responsibilities
belongingness family, friends, clubs teams, depts, coworkers, clients, supervisors, subordinates
safety freedom from war, poison, violence work safety, job security, health insurance
physiological food water sex Heat, air, base salary

According to Maslow, lower needs take priority. They must be fulfilled before the others are activated. There is some basic common sense here — it’s pointless to worry about whether a given color looks good on you when you are dying of starvation, or being threatened with your life. There are some basic things that take precedence over all else.

Or at least logically should, if people were rational. But is that a safe assumption? According to the theory, if you are hungry and have inadequate shelter, you won’t go to church. Can’t do the higher things until you have the lower things. But the poor tend to be more religious than the rich. Both within a given culture, and across nations. So the theory makes the wrong prediction here.

Or take education: how often do you hear “I can’t go to class today, I haven’t had sex in three days!”?  Do all physiological needs including sex have to be satisfied before “higher” needs?  (Besides, wouldn’t the authors of the Kama Sutra argue that sex was a kind of self-expression more like art than a physiological need? that would put it in the self-actualization box). Again, the theory doesn’t seem to predict correctly.

Cultural critique: Does Maslow’s classification really reflect the order in which needs are satisfied, or is it more about classifying needs from a kind of “tastefulness” perspective, with lofty goals like personal growth and creativity at the top, and “base” instincts like sex and hunger at the bottom? And is self-actualization actually a fundamental need? Or just something that can be done if you have the leisure time?

Alderfer’s ERG theory

Alderfer classifies needs into three categories, also ordered hierarchically:

  • growth needs (development of competence and realization of potential)
  • relatedness needs (satisfactory relations with others)
  • existence needs (physical well-being)

This is very similar to Maslow — can be seen as just collapsing into three tiers. But maybe a bit more rational. For example, in Alderfer’s model, sex does not need to be in the bottom category as it is in Maslow’s model, since it is not crucial to (the individual’s) existence. (Remember, this about individual motivation, not species’ survival.) So by moving sex, this theory does not predict that people have to have sex before they can think about going to school, like Maslow’s theory does.

Alderfer believed that as you start satisfying higher needs, they become more intense (e.g., the power you get the more you want power), like an addiction.

Do any of these theories have anything useful to say for managing businesses? Well, if true, they suggest that

  • Not everyone is motivated by the same things. It depends where you are in the hierarchy (think of it as a kind of personal development scale)
  • The needs hierarchy probably mirrors the organizational hierarchy to a certain extent: top managers are more likely to motivated by self-actualization/growth needs than existence needs. (but try telling Bill Clinton that top executives are not motivated by sex and cheeseburgers…)

Acquired Needs Theory (mcclellan)

Some needs are acquired as a result of life experiences

  • need for achievement, accomplish something difficult. as kids encouraged to do things for themselves.
  • need for affiliation, form close personal relationships. as kids rewarded for making friends.
  • need for power, control others. as kids, able to get what they want through controlling others.

Again similar to maslow and alderfer.

These needs can be measured using the TAT (thematic apperception test), which is a projection-style test based on interpreting stories that people tell about a set of pictures.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

This theory suggests that there are actually two motivation systems: intrinsic and extrinsic that correspond to two kinds of motivators:

  • intrinsic motivators:  Achievement, responsibility and competence. motivators that come from the actual performance of the task or job — the intrinsic interest of the work.
  • extrinsic:  pay, promotion, feedback, working conditions — things that come from a person’s environment, controlled by others.

One or the other of these may be a more powerful motivator for a given individual.

Intrinsically motivated individuals perform for their own achievement and satisfaction. If they come to believe that they are doing some job because of the pay or the working conditions or some other extrinsic reason, they begin to lose motivation.

The belief is that the presence of powerful extrinsic motivators can actually reduce a person’s intrinsic motivation, particularly if the extrinsic motivators are perceived by the person to be controlled by people. In other words, a boss who is always dangling this reward or that stick will turn off the intrinsically motivated people.

Note that the intrinsic motivators tend to be higher on the Maslow hierarchy.

Two Factor theory (Herzberg)

According to Herzberg, two kinds of factors affect motivation, and they do it in different ways:

  • hygiene factors. These are factors whose absence motivates, but whose presence has no perceived effect. They are things that when you take them away, people become dissatisfied and act to get them back. A very good example is heroin to a heroin addict. Long term addicts do not shoot up to get high; they shoot up to stop being sick — to get normal.  Other examples include decent working conditions, security, pay, benefits (like health insurance), company policies, interpersonal relationships. In general, these are extrinsic items low in the Maslow/Alderfer hierarchy.
  • motivators. These are factors whose presence motivates. Their absence does not cause any particular dissatisfaction, it just fails to motivate. Examples are all the things at the top of the Maslow hierarchy, and the intrinsic motivators.

So hygiene factors determine dissatisfaction, and motivators determine satisfaction. The two scales are independent, and you can be high on both.

If you think back to the class discussion on power, we talked about a baseline point on the well-being scale. Power involved a threat to reduce your well-being, causing dissatisfaction. Hence, power basically works by threatening to withhold hygiene factors. Influence was said to fundamentally be about promising improvements in well-being — when you are influenced to do something, it is because you want to, not because you were threatened. Influence basically works by offering to provide motivators (in Herzberg’s terms).

Equity Theory

Suppose employee A gets a 20% raise and employee B gets a 10% raise. Will both be motivated as a result? Will  A be twice as motivated? Will be B be negatively motivated?

Equity theory says that it is not the actual reward that motivates, but the perception, and the perception is based not on the reward in isolation, but in comparison with the efforts that went into getting it, and the rewards and efforts of others. If everyone got a 5% raise, B is likely to feel quite pleased with her raise, even if she worked harder than everyone else. But if A got an even higher raise, B perceives that she worked just as hard as A, she will be unhappy.

In other words, people’s motivation results from a ratio of ratios:  a person compares the ratio of reward to effort with the comparable ratio of reward to effort that they think others are getting.

Of course, in terms of actually predicting how a person will react to a given motivator, this will get pretty complicated:

  1. People do not have complete information about how others are rewarded. So they are going on perceptions, rumors, inferences.
  2. Some people are more sensitive to equity issues than others
  3. Some people are willing to ignore short-term inequities as long as they expect things to work out in the long-term.

Reinforcement Theory

Operant Conditioning is the term used by B.F. Skinner to describe the effects of the consequences of a particular behavior on the future occurrence of that behavior. There are four types of Operant Conditioning: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction. Both Positive and Negative Reinforcement strengthen behavior while both Punishment and Extinction weaken behavior.

  • Positive reinforcement.  Strengthening a behavior. This is the process of getting goodies as a consequence of a behavior. You make a sale, you get a commission. You do a good job, you get a bonus & a promotion.
  • Negative reinforcement. Strengthening a behavior. This is the process of having a stressor taken away as a  consequence of a behavior. Long-term sanctions are removed from countries when their human rights records improve. (you see how successful that is!). Low status as geek at Salomon Brothers is removed when you make first big sale.
  • Extinction. Weakening a behavior. This is the process of getting no goodies when do a behavior. So if person does extra effort, but gets no thanks for it, they stop doing it.
  • Punishment. Weakening a behavior. This is the process of getting a punishment as a consequence of a behavior. Example: having your pay docked for lateness.
Apply Withhold
Reward positive reinforcement (raise above baseline) negative reinforcement (raise up to baseline)
Stressor punishment (bring down below baseline) extinction (stay at baseline)

Reinforcement schedules.

The traditional reinforcement schedule is called a continuous reinforcement schedule. Each time the correct behavior is performed it gets reinforced.

Then there is what we call an intermittent reinforcement schedule. There are fixed and variable categories.

The Fixed Interval Schedule is where reinforcement is only given after a certain amount of time has elapsed. So, if you decided on a 5 second interval then each reinforcement would occur at the fixed time of every 5 seconds.

The Fixed Ratio Schedule is where the reinforcement is given only after a predetermined number of responses. This is often seen in behavior chains where a number of behaviors have to occur for reinforcement to occur.

The Variable Interval Schedule is where the reinforcement is given after varying amounts of time between each reinforcement.

The Variable Ratio Schedule is where the reinforcement is given after a varying number of correct responses.

Fluctuating combinations of primary and secondary reinforcers fall under other terms in the variable ratio schedule; For example, Reinforcers delivered Intermittently in a Randomized Order (RIR) or Variable Ratio with Reinforcement Variety (VRRV).

Fixed Variable
Interval give reward after first proper response following a specified time period(yearly raise)

[short term]

give reward after a certain amt of time w/ the amt changing before the next reward(unexpected bonus based on merit)

Ratio punishment (subtract from baseline)(commissions or piecework pay)

give reward after a number of responses, w/ that no. changing before the next reward(team-based bonus)

[long term]

Expectancy Theory (Vroom)

This theory is meant to bring together many of the elements of previous theories. It combines the perceptual aspects of equity theory with the behavioral aspects of the other theories. Basically, it comes down to this “equation”:

M = E*I*V


motivation = expectancy * instrumentality * valence

M (motivation) is the amount a person will be motivated by the situation they find themselves in. It is a function of the following.

E (expectancy) = The person’s perception that effort will result in performance. In other words, the person’s assessment of the degree to which effort actually correlates with performance.

I (instrumentality) = The person’s perception that performance will be rewarded/punished. I.e., the person’s assessment of how well the amount of reward correlates with the quality of performance. (Note here that the model is phrased in terms of extrinsic motivation, in that it asks ‘what are the chances I’m going to get rewarded if I do good job?’. But for intrinsic situations, we can think of this as asking ‘how good will I feel if I can pull this off?’).

V(valence) = The perceived strength of the reward or punishment that will result from the performance. If the reward is small, the motivation will be small, even if expectancy and instrumentality are both perfect (high).

15 Big Life Insights I Wish I Knew at 18



1) True pleasure and results come from mastery

In this internet age, there are many of Jack of all trades: people who know a bit about MANY things, but have not mastered any one thing. This is unfortunate. Immense pleasure is derived from being absolutely badass at something.

The solution:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.” – Swami Vivekananda

2) The best practices are those you discover for yourself

The downside of having so much information available online is that it’s easy to get lost in spiral of trying out other people’s methods while never attempting to create on of your own. You’re missing a lot of context when simply subscribing to some internet guru’s meditation technique. This is akin to buying an iPhone and thinking you know how to manufacture a phone.

Instead, try a method that you think would feel good for you. Continually make modifications until you have a practice that is uniquely your own. Feel free to take inspiration from others, but be sure the final product is finely tailored to who you are.

3) Reality is highly subjective

Even science is subjective. The more deeply you realize this truth, the better you will get along with your fellow man. Our thoughts and beliefs shape our realities in a greater capacity than we can fully understand. This is has major take-aways:

1) Accept the seemingly absurd views of others as a logical result of them looking through an entirely different lens.

2) Realize that you are in control of the lens you look through. Carefully mold your beliefs towards the kind of world you wish to live in. The sky is the limit.

4) You can only be truly angry at yourself

If something bothers you, it must also dwell inside of you. For example, if your friend’s selfish behavior pisses you off, then you are actually frustrated by your own selfish tendencies. I know, this one is difficult to swallow at first. Take a long hard introspective look inside the next time you’re angered. It’s a great way to learn more about yourself and increase your control of your emotions.

5) Re-apply your own principles routinely

Lessons need to be learned over and over. It’s easy to ride the wave of your past learned experiences and fool yourself into think you’re still acting upon them. Keep a note somewhere of your big life lessons and go through them routinely to make sure you’re still on track.

6) Stating intentions out loud can reduce their power

The opposite is also true, but this side of the polarity is rarely talked about.

There is something powerful about concealing a secret mission to accomplish X rather than sharing it with the world. I’m having trouble iterating exactly why this is, but please do try it out for yourself.

7) My broken record: pyschedelics are an insanely powerful tool for introspection

I’ve advocated the responsible use of psychedelics for personal growth on HE more times than I can mention. They have been essential to my own growth, and to the existence of this very website. Read this article for more info if you’re a first-timer.

8) Your morning routine is everything

Start your day with a structure that empowers you for the rest of the day.

For me, the most important part is getting up at a set time, even if that time isn’t very early. In this case, consistency trumps efficiency (within reason).

When you’re awake, do what makes you feel ALIVE! It doesn’t need to be meditation or journaling. Do what makes you amped for the rest of the day.

9) Seriously, remember people’s names

I’m still horrible at this. I like to blame it on the sheer number of people who contact me on a daily basis, which has trained me to think that I can’t keep track, but that’s just an excuse.

Remembering someone’s name is the first step towards seeing the divinity in each person you meet.

10) Embrace what is innate in yourself

For a while I battled with my anti-social nature. On an average night, I much prefer to stay in and work/create than go out with other people. In the past I felt bad for not wanting to be social, placing selfish accusations on myself. But more recently I’ve realized this is just me. Self-improvement books and popular culture have taught me that it’s not good to live out that side of me. But it feels good. So fuck it.

11) Repetition is key

Unless you’re a savant, you need to read/learn/experience things multiple times for them to stick. If come across something that hits home with you, be sure to revisit it again and again until it’s engrained in you.

Re-read books, write down your lessons, use Anki Cards for memorization, etc. And repeat 🙂

12) FOCUS! / Learn to say NO

I know this because I’m still recovering from the lesson. My time is split between HE, Valhalla Movement, RaveNectar and some super-secret side-projects. My results would be much more powerful if I poured all of my time into 1-2 projects maximum.

Just because something is inline with your bliss does not mean it has a place in your life. Place a priority on having priorities 😉

13) Down with extremes

Self-improvement freaks have a tendency to try out extreme habits, eg. no meat, working out every day, no drinking, etc. These short-lived experiments generally end with a binge on the other end of the spectrum. Instead, aim for a healthy balance from the start.

14) Follow the path of least resistance

When you’re in full acceptance of the path laid before you, life flows. You don’t need to force anything.

If you’re pursuing something and life is throwing a ridiculous amount of hurdles at you, re-consider whether or not this is the right path for you. Are you forcing it?

It may seem difficult to discern between needing to work hard and the Universe saying ‘STOP!’, but you’ll gain that ability with time.

15) You can do anything

Every single amazing person you’ve ever heard of started off as a zero. Great feats come through sweat and tears, not innate talent. Decide what your greatness should be and go pursue it relentlessly. The only person standing in your way is you.

20 Lessons you will learn in your 20’s !

Believing in your self is the only thing worth believing in. We spend a great deal of time trying to analyse what life is and what it has in it’s kitty for us, but only after few time bound experiences we  conclude with the answers we are looking for.

1. Failure is an achievement, the de facto principle you will learn by now is, that failing is glorious, instead of not making a move.

2. Relationships may hold you down and sever your growth.

3. Life is unfair and you will learn to live with it.

4. Certificate courses don’t tantamount to job opportunities.

5. Living for a a passion is worth living.

6. Money is hard to earn and slips easily.

7. The “fear of the unknown” needs to be dealt with.

8. Travelling opens your mind like religion closes.

9. Everybody has a different path to follow, you just need to look for your own.

10. Your opinion about a lot of things must have changed, clubbing every weekend does not excites you anymore.

11. You wish to have developed a lot of habits in your teens that would have been helpful to you now, like reading books or not smoking.

12. You don’t need to convince everyone of what you are all about.

13. A skill is important better get that before you turn 30.

14. You are a manifestation of your surroundings, if you don’t have good one, keep to your books, they will prove to be  a prolific you need both to sustain the long race called life.

15. Risk is important and you know how to take the plunge.

16. Your school friends cling on to you longer than most the people you meet.

17. You don’t necessarily need someones company all the time, you know how to manage alone

18. Emotions are good but they hold you, and you wont be this ebullient and industrious again, so time to .

19. The path of obstacles is the path to glory.

20. Life after 30 is largely a result of what you do in your 20’s, so it is important to strike the right balance between hard work and play, you will need to both to sustain the journey called life.

Keep the dream alive !

Hedonic Adaptation – How to keep Happiness from fading

How to Keep Happiness From Fading

By: Heidi Grant Halvorson

No matter how miserable you are feeling at the moment, if you look back, there have surely been events in your life that have made you happy.  Maybe the time you bought your first car, or the time you received that long-desired promotion.  Or the time you lost fifteen pounds and were able to get back into your favorite jeans without cutting off your circulation.  When good things happen, we feel positive emotions – like excitement, relief, pride, and of course, happiness.  These feelings are essential for our well-being.

But the problem is, happiness doesn’t usually last.  The excitement of that first car purchase wears off, the thrill of the promotion gives way to the anxiety of handling the responsibilities that came with it.  Sure, you think, it’s nice to be a size 8 again.  But it would be really great to be a size 6…

Psychologists call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation – the idea is that no matter how good something makes us feel (or, for the record, how bad), most of the time we drift back to where we started, emotionally-speaking. One often-cited study famously showed that despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later.  The same tendency to return to “baseline” has been shown to occur after marriage, voluntary job changes, and promotions – the kinds of things we usually expect to change our happiness and well-being for the better in a permanent way.

Why can’t we make the happiness last?  Psychologists (and renown happiness experts) Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky argue in a recent paper that our hedonic adaption occurs for two reasons.

When a positive change first occurs (say, you move into a great new house), there are usually lots of positive events happening as a result.  You get to break in that new six-burner range, take a long bath in your first soaking tub, and appreciate the roominess of your new garage. But over time, there are fewer positive events to experience, because you get used to all the home’s features, and after a while you just don’t notice them anymore.  With fewer positive events, and thus fewer positive emotions (excitement, pride, happiness), your newfound well-being can’t be sustained.

The second reason happiness fades is that even when positive events continue – if, for instance, your fitness and healthy eating habits leave you looking great, and this results in lots of new opportunities for romance on a regular basis –  the change begins to simply be seen as the “new normal.”   And as a result, your aspiration level shifts – you feel like you need to look even better.  Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has referred to this process as a kind of “satisfaction treadmill.” Because we continuously shift our standards upward once we’ve reached them, we’ve got to keep running in order to feel satisfied again.

But don’t despair – it is possible to make happiness last, by slowing the adaptation process, or even halting it all together.  Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found in a recentstudy that two anti-adaptation tools were effective in sustaining gains in happiness over time:  variety and appreciation.

Variety is, as we all know, the spice of life.  But it’s also a potent weapon against  adaptation, because we don’t get “used to” positive events when our experiences are novel, or unexpected.  When, on the other hand, a positive experience is repetitive – when you know exactly what to expect – you don’t get the same kick out of it.

Positive changes that are experienced in a variety of ways are more likely to lead to lasting happiness.  So you’ll be happier with your new spouse if you spend time doing new things together, rather than getting stuck in a boring routine.  You’ll be happier at your job if you are able to tackle new tasks and challenges – if there is some day-to-day variety in what you do.   You’ll be happier with your soaker tub if you run out and get yourself some new bubble bath, or try lighting candles (or maybe ask someone to join you in it.)

The happiness you get from doing anything will fade if you do it the same way every day, so mix things up.  Think about this before making a change because you believe it will make you happier – will you be able to experience whatever it is in a variety of ways?   Because if the answer is no, don’t expect the happiness to last.

Tool #2, appreciation, is in many ways the opposite of adaptation – it’s going out of your way to focus on something, rather than taking it for granted or letting it fade into the background.  Appreciating can mean paying attention or noticing, but it is even more powerful when you take it further – when you savor something, delighting in its qualities and relishing how it makes you feel, or when you experience gratitude, a sense of being fortunate for being in your current circumstances compared to others, or compared to where you have been in the past.  When we appreciate our positive experiences, when we turn our mind’s eye toward them again and again in joy and wonder, we don’t just make our happiness last – we kick it up a notch, too.

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have.  In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned.  The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

“Zamane ki raftar se bekhabar…” Asar Lakhnavi se phir se mulaqat

Vahshatedil's Blog

Yeh zaahir hai ke koi bhi adeeb apne vaqt ke halaat se mutaasir zaroor hota hai, aur inki aks uske kalam mein kisi na kisi tareeqe se nazaar aati hai.  Kuch aise hote hai jo aas-paas aur us waqt ke halaat par hi apna tawajju dete hai, jab ke aise bhi shakhs hote hai jinhe aisa karne ka iraada bhi na ho, lekin unke hosh aur zehn ke kai benishan jazire mein yeh jazbat base rehte hai aur apne se nikal kar unke fan mein aa jaate hai….

Aur doosre taraf aise hote hai jinhe aapne halaat ki koi parva hi nahi rehti hai…… Is shumar mein ahm maqaam rakhte hai Nawab Jafar Ali Khan Asar Lakhnavi.

Zamaane ki raftar se bekhabar hai
Yeh Nawab Jafar Ali Khan Asar hai …….

Majaz ne inke baare mein apne mjukhtalif andaaz mein unke baare mein farmaya tha, aur kafi saheeh the…

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