• Louise Carnachan

Why a Pay Increase Doesn't Create Happiness for Long


The 1960s psychologist Fredrick Hertzberg wrote One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees. His cutting-edge premise of the time was that most people are motivated by the intrinsic rewards of work and not the extrinsic ones doled out by their employers. We’re satisfied by growth opportunities, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and recognition. These same items (slightly reworded) are ever present in employee satisfaction surveys.


However, it’s foolish to ignore the impact of employer’s rewards (termed “hygiene factors” by Hertzberg). When they don’t measure up, they become what he labeled “dissatisfiers” which erode morale. These hygiene factors may not make the job totally worthwhile, but their absence rankles. Some examples are inadequate compensation, lousy management, draconian company policies, substandard working conditions, and difficult work relationships. The more deficiencies an employer has, the more disgruntled their employees are—perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. The wise company is careful not to allow extrinsic rewards to become problematic by assuring they are at least satisfactory. Hertzberg’s theory explains why poor pay can be a continual irritant but a salary bump doesn’t equate to happiness beyond the first couple of paychecks.


We quickly habituate to a better normal, a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself. The name for this is hedonistic adaptability. Essentially, we acclimate to our entitlement. This might sound like a negative trait and it can sure look that way when someone is complaining about their jaw-dropping privilege. But not being satisfied serves as motivation to keep striving, set new goals, and continue to grow. It’s how we’re wired as humans. Unfortunately, our tendency toward hedonistic adaptability may have the effect of catapulting us past the good we’ve received and landing us in a state of dissatisfaction.


We can increase the enjoyment of accomplishments by making a point of being consciously aware of progress toward the desired end. Most of us see taking steps toward a goal as a necessary evil rather than something to be savored. We’re impatient and want to check items off the list. We wish everything would move faster, that necessary components would drop from the sky, and that all obstacles would evaporate. Hand over the prize—now! If we don’t go through a conscious process, we miss the journey which is often filled with interesting twists and turns, people, places, and experiences. If you can enjoy getting to your destination, you’ve had pleasure all along the way. Otherwise, you’ve experienced impatience followed by fleeting enjoyment before it’s onto the next thing.


A few years ago, there was a video circulating about a fellow who wakes up amnesiac to his previous life. Everything is miraculous: electricity, running hot water, having a job. I’ll never forget the character’s gleeful exclamation, “And I have a car, too?!” What a terrific reminder to occasionally notice and appreciate what we already have rather to let it fade into the background.


It’s perfectly natural to yearn for more. However, you can allow yourself more than a few seconds to reflect on an accomplishment and what brought you there—even the hair raising or uncertain moments that (in retrospect) make a great story. Part of who you are today is a result of the journey you’ve taken toward accomplished or missed ambitions.


So, when that next desire appears relish the anticipation of obtaining it and decide that this time you’ll enjoy the journey more too.

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