Turns out The Epic Van is hedonic thwarting machine

  • Daybreak at our camp at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California.

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.


  1. Reply
    Marian Frank September 7, 2020

    Great post, Judy! Thanks for the tip on Coursera. I’m going to look for that course. You are so right about the posessions v experiences. We have learned that quickly in retirement! Love reading about yours and Tom’s experiences.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 7, 2020

      Thanks, Marian. I’m amazed at everything we’ve done in six years, and I love looking back at the photos and posts. I feel like we’re living the dream, and I don’t miss any actual “thing.” Ha!

  2. Reply
    Elizabeth Jane Armstrong September 7, 2020

    Love this poat Judy! I’ve always believed happiness comes from new experiences, new sights and sounds and vistas, meeting new people and looking at life in new ways. Please keep trekking!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 7, 2020

      Thank you, Jane! It’s so true in, as evidenced in our lives. If we weren’t adventurous, we never would have met, which would have been a tragedy.

  3. Reply
    Kirstin September 7, 2020

    Yes, keep sharing! We may just join you before tooo long!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 7, 2020

      That would be fantastic, Kristin!

      • Reply
        Bundy September 12, 2020

        Couldn’t agree more! We’re camping beside Lake Superior, reading your posts, it’s 64f, it’s going to pour rain and the waves are crashing. Much more fun than sitting at home.

        • Reply
          Judy Nichols September 12, 2020

          Bundy, so good to hear from you. Have you recovered from your fall? It sounded horrible. So glad you are out and about. We need to plan a Prairie Creek reunion sometime next year!

  4. Reply
    David Stabler September 7, 2020

    Great post, Judy. And timely. Thanks for the Coursera tip. I’ll look into it. We’ve been wondering what and where you’ve been. Glad to hear from you. Hope you can Zoom with us next Saturday. Love to you and Tom.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 8, 2020

      Thanks, David. We’ve been wandering a bit. Most recently up to Idaho. More later. We’ll definitely try to make the call. Love to you and Judy.

  5. Reply
    Laurie Ralston September 7, 2020

    I’ve got about five more years and then I’m there with you. Of course, we’ll be doing our downsizing a bit bigger than you (a smaller house in Tempe and a 5th-wheel trailer), but as usual, you are my guide! The podcast sounds great; I’m trying to figure out a way to stay zen while my career still ramps up bit, and Santos sounds like the thing. I miss you gobs! Please let me know when you’re in town. Hugs!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 8, 2020

      Laurie, Will do. I can’t believe all the wonderful things you’re doing. You’d really like Professor Santos.We’ll probably back by the 15th. I’ll call you so we can get together. And when you are out on the road, we’ll definitely meet up!

  6. Reply
    Meredith September 8, 2020

    Oh Judy! You hit the nail on the head again! I learned a lot in that online class and when not in the class I learned a lot while pondering about what we learned. Experiences are where IT’S at! And experiences with interesting people like you make all so much better! Hugs and love to you and Tom. Even with crazy corona, it is such an amazing, beautiful world!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 8, 2020

      Absolutely! And thank you for suggesting the wonderful class. Life is made sweeter with such smart, creative, fun friends. Love you!

  7. Reply
    Becky Rhodes September 8, 2020

    Judy…I signed up for Cousera class on Happiness, too. I saw the information on a local seniors website. Always enjoy your views on the world. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 8, 2020

      Great, Becky! I really enjoyed it.

  8. Reply
    Mike Ober September 8, 2020

    Your thoughts are nothing that I didn’t already know from my own life experiences so I don’t want you to get too cocky. However, your post is a wonderful reminder of what’s important at a challenging point in time for everyone. On behalf of all your readers, thank you for taking the time to share these wonderful insights. For a moment, I was able to soar above the muck.

    Since we are on lockdown and the entire place is burning up anyhow, traveling is kinda out of the question. However, I travel into my backyard everyday and the beauty of my plants, the various animals, and landscape afar makes me happy and each of those ecosystems continually changes producing an infinite stream of new experiences. Sometimes you gotta get high on the micro.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 8, 2020

      Mike, Thanks for the note. Never cocky, but content with our nomadic wanderings. Glad to hear you’re finding joy in your own piece of nature. We are following the fires across the West, dodging smoke in Idaho and mourning the loss of some of the ancient trees. We hope to visit you and California sometime next year. Love from the road, Judy and Tom

  9. Reply
    Nancy R Warfield September 9, 2020

    thanks Judy, I have noticed this too during our van trips and now have a name for it. It’s great for somebody with a brain like mine, I accustom to routine pretty quickly and then life turns painfully dull. Guess that’s why I had 3 careers!
    Glad you are dodging the smoke. We woke up today and the sky was dirty orange cloud cover. Now it’s 8:00 and so dark, looks like dusk. What’s next?

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 9, 2020

      Thanks, Nancy. I think we, of multiple interests, are underappreciated!!! Hope the fires start clearing up, but I expect it will get worse before it gets better. We’ve also been fleeing freezing temps from the cold front, and dodging high winds in Idaho that were predicted to have 98 mph gusts. I fear The Epic Van would be sleeping on its side if we waded into that. Time to head back to the desert!

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