One of my favorite quotes on happiness has been attributed to Pablo Picasso: "I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money."
Opaque? Perhaps. But I think what Picasso meant is that when we don't have much money, little luxuries excite us. I can still remember the first time I bought brand-name Ziploc bags at the grocery store, rather than the generic sandwich bags I'd grown up with. If you're a poor graduate student, the mere experience of going out to eat can be blissful. When you get more money, you stop viewing restaurant meals as anything outside the norm. So you start complaining that the service is slow, the meat is too salty, and so forth. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to go out to eat all the time, and still think it was the coolest thing in the world?
Humans have a difficult time thinking this way -- most of us are on the "hedonic treadmill" to some degree or another. We get used to things, and it takes more and more to excite us.
Some of this is probably inevitable. But as I ponder the intersection of money and happiness, I do think it's possible to slow the treadmill, and hence approximate the Picasso quote. In my case, having small children has thrown quite a wrench into the hedonic treadmill's gears. I can afford to eat out, but doing so with three small kids is quite a hassle (as is booking a babysitter, if they're not coming along). So I eat out a lot less than I might.
Even without munchkins, though, it's possible to slow the treadmill and maintain enjoyment of pleasures by reminding ourselves that they are just that: pleasures. The research on gratitude has probably been over-hyped, but there's little harm in training the mind to seek the good in simple things. A functioning computer. A good cup of coffee. All can pass without notice, or can be noticed, written down and celebrated. Just create a list on your iPhone to jot down little things, and try to put at least one entry in there per day. Do that enough, and perhaps you can live as a poor man with lots of money, just like Picasso said.
How do you remind yourself to enjoy the simple things?
Photo of Picasso's "Still Life With Guitar" courtesy of Flickr user jmussuto.