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Good news never lasts

A recent WiseBread post discusses how people’s standards of living tended to rise linearly before the advent of credit cards, and how they don’t necessarily now because credit-card holders can borrow money against their future to raise their standards of living in the present. The author, Philip Brewer, discusses being deliberate about raising one’s standard of living and raises some good points on when to buy things to make you happier and when to say “I have enough.”

He mentions that it’s important to be happy with a stable standard of living, because “we know that people are made temporarily happier by increases in their standard of living,” but that those increase don’t happen often enough to rely on. He’s right; it’s a well-known phenomenon that people adjust to new situations remarkably quickly–and it’s easier to adjust to good news than bad.

Why is this? Basically, it’s because it’s important for us–for any organism, really–to be able to understand our world. That means that it has to be familiar; novelty by definition is strange, and strangeness is something the brain doesn’t like. So it analyzes the situation, accepts it, encodes it as the new normal, and gets on with its other tasks. There are neurons in the brain that respond specifically to novelty. There’s also a big section of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that carries out what are called executive functions: synthesizing, organizing, understanding.

So it’s a physiological fact of life that sudden good news isn’t always going to be as thrilling as it is the day you get it; that feeling may last a day or even a few, but eventually your brain will incorporate the news into its idea of how the world should be, ought to be, and will settle down. Philip’s advice on considering ways to increase standard of living long-term, not just temporarily, is good to follow, because those temporary increases will inevitably go away.

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