While loss aversion makes us prize what we have – even if it is something we don’t need and don’t use – the endowment effect makes us get used to new things quickly. What was a luxury that would make us happy, if only we could afford it, turns into a sheer necessity for a normal life, one of those things which are there without ever being noticed. Only when looking back over life, if you are into introspection, might you notice that you did not live like this before: I remember when mobile phones were the size of bricks and no person in their right mind could imagine making phone calls in public. Recently, a mobile phone became a part of what people consider a normal standard of living; if you can’t even afford that, you are considered poor.
It explains why technological and material progress does not necessarily make us feel any happier. Sure, there are advantages, but we get used to new things pretty quickly. Also, while a new gadget may seem glorious when you only imagine having it, daily use breeds familiarity and makes all the quirks and hassles apparent – but since others also consider it necessary, it’s hard to decide against these things.
The real problem is not deciding for or against, however (except if you are tempted to get anything and everything that is shiny and new). It is that our tendency to quickly get used to the way things are makes us very much used to a certain standard of living, especially if it’s rather good, and “the way things are.”
Just look around you:
Having a car, or two; going into debt (or not); treasuring academic education or a certain practical learning without too much deep thinking – whatever you consider, it is based on how things just are. And how things have become, with ubiquitous computers, mobile phones, easy worldwide transportation, seems just simply normal.
Even people who win the lottery don’t get significantly happier or live decidedly different, they drift into being basically just as they were before, except that the newly luxurious lifestyle (if that’s what they go for) does not appear luxurious after only a little while, but simply normal.
Simply normal is the watchword, for we all just learn to take things as they are (for the most part, anyways). It is only when you get thrown out of your normal situation that you stop and startle – and often enough, people then go into reactionary mode, refusing to accept change, scrabbling to have things “get back to normal.”
The danger is that it makes us less flexible, even less creative and open to experiment, than may be good for us. You lose your job, but you still try to live the same lifestyle you had before (and go deeper and deeper into debt); you grew up thinking that you are entitled to a well cut-out career path, getting a house, a car, having a family, so that you hardly notice the way things have changed – and instead of acting differently, trying out what will be more appropriate, you hang on to approaches that do not work anymore.
Happiness – and sometimes, even just getting by – thus means learning not to take things for granted quite as much, learning to take a step back from “simply normal” and experimenting with what you really need and what you could do differently. It is hard, but at least knowing about our tendencies to get caught up in what we have makes us more aware of this behavior and potentially able to do something about it – and if it is only to go for a hike or to travel in order to find that true needs are different from what is “simply normal,” and then appreciate all those normal things a bit more.