Turns out The Epic Van is hedonic thwarting machine
There are some things you just know. In your gut. But it’s nice when science proves you right.
Like I know that I’ve been measurably happier in the six years since Tom and I quit our jobs, sold our house and started wandering the country in our fancy-ass camper van. When people ask, I tell them, without irony, that I love every minute. Every minute.
Now I know why. Scientifically. And it’s called thwarting hedonic adaptation.
Big words. Bigger concept. How did I get so smart? By listening to smarter people, of course.
This time, it’s Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, who teaches The Science of Well Being, which you can take online through Coursera for FREE. My smart friend, Meredith, suggested the course to me and our friend, Jackie, as a way to use our pandemic time wisely.
And so I started streaming Santos’s lectures.
I think, if I’m honest, I approach life, and learning, with a Pollyanna/skeptic split personality, expecting the best, but with my eyes narrowed, my nose alert for any whiff of snake oil.
Santos has made me a believer.
She shares all the latest research on what makes us happier and how to incorporate practices into our lives to increase happiness.
It turns out our brains confound us, making us think certain things will make us happy. We think things like more money, a bigger house or better car will make us happier. Turns out, it isn’t true. It’s called miswanting. And we’re very good at it.
Research shows that, with new things, there is a slight uptick in happiness, then we get used to them and return to our previous level of happiness. Hedonic adaptation.
This is coupled with our brain always recalculating, adjusting, comparing.
We get a new car, we get used to it, our neighbor gets a fancier one, and we start wanting an even better one. We get a raise, we readjust our money meter, and decide we should be making even more. We compare ourselves to the Kardashians on Instagram, and think we should live in a mansion.
Accumulating things is a trap. And comparing ourselves to others makes us miserable.
So what can make us happier?
One thing is new experiences. Taking a trip. Visiting a museum. Going to a concert. Going on a hike. Turns out new experiences give us longer lasting joy. We enjoy planning them, doing them, remembering them. Spending money on experiences gives us joy in anticipation while spending money on things makes us frustrated in waiting for them to arrive.
We don’t get used to new experiences because they’re unique. No hedonic adaptation. And it’s hard to compare one person’s trip to the Grand Canyon to another’s.
It also turns out that being grateful, savoring life, being engaged, … are all things that can make us happier.
Which brings me back to life in The Epic Van. It’s the hedonic thwarting machine.
Every day is a new view out the window, one day the waves crashing in the Pacific, another bison grazing on the plains. It takes us to new museums, like the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, or the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. We’ve hiked through ancient redwoods in California and ridden bicycles down abandoned railroad tracks in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho/Montana border. We’ve watched Shakespeare on the Montana State campus, and wondered at the stars from our camp chairs near Arches National Park. We’re always planning the next turn in the road, savoring tonight’s campfire, and being grateful for this nomadic life.
And our way of life limits the number of things we buy. I have two pairs of hiking boots, one pair of “formal” black athletic shoes and a pair of flip flops. I have two pairs of hiking pants, one pair of jeans and one pair of khakis. We have one frying pan, one soup pot, one pot to heat water for coffee, and two ceramic bowls to eat from.
In a storage area, we have antiques, family photos, and vintage Christmas decorations we couldn’t part with. I have never missed one thing.
The research also shows that people enjoy hearing about other’s experiences, that afterward, they think the people are interesting, compared to people who talk about their possessions, who are thought to be boring and shallow.
So, I’ll try not to feel weird sharing our amazing experiences, hoping it brings you happiness. And, if you join us out here, thwarting hedonic adaptation, we’ll find a spot for you at camp.