Hedonic adaptation is the name given to the fact that people get used to positive things and events. Though positive things and events make us happy, we get used to them and their impact on our happiness diminishes over time as we hedonically adapt.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Hedonic Adaptation

We’ve all experienced hedonic adaptation before. I’m sure you can think of a time when there was something exciting and new that you really want to get, maybe a new car or a great new job or a new phone. When you imagine having it, you know know it’ll bring you a lot of happiness. And when you get it, it’s great. You’re buzzing. You use it and enjoy it and feel pleased about it. But then, after a few hours or days or weeks, it’s just sort of there. You’re used to it. It’s just part of life, it’s fine probably, but it doesn’t bring you joy any more. It might even be a bit “meh”.

 

This process of adapting to the things we have, of diminishing joy from new things is a process we all go through. There’s been a lot of research on it and if you search around the internet you’ll find some great case studies. Some of the most famous involve:

  • Lottery winners who only experience a temporary increase in happiness from their wins, returning to their base levels of happiness within a few years
  • Married couples who experience an increase in happiness around the years of their marriage, only to return to base levels within a few years
  • People eating nice food who enjoy the first bite the most, and each subsequent bite slightly less

The Flip Side

There’s good news too though. It seems that humans are pretty elastic both upwards and downwards. Not only do we get used to new positive things and return to our happiness equilibrium pretty quickly, we do the same with negative events in life. Take a minute to think about it. Have there been times when you’ve been dreading doing something only to learn that whatever it is, it gets a bit more tolerable over time? Research certainly suggests that people get used to all kinds of events that they think will have a huge negative impact on their happiness. It’s true that these negative events may have a large short term impact on our happiness, but generally speaking, people bounce back a bit over time.

Again, there’s been a lot of research in this area and some of the most famous examples involve:

  • Accident victims who suffer life changing outcomes such as the loss of a limb, but who return to their baseline happiness levels over time
  • College students who fail exams which they think will be catastrophic, but who move on quickly from their disappointment
  • Individuals who separate from their partners and who suffer significant emotional distress, but why again adapt and bounce back over time

Getting Stuck on the Treadmill

So what are some impacts of this fact of hedonic adaptation on human existence?

Well, all too often this propensity can lead people to constantly chase a new “hit” of happiness. The happiness new experiences bring us are only fleeting, so as they wear off we seek to replace them with something different that gives us another spike of happiness.

This perennial quest for happiness is sometimes referred to as the “hedonic treadmill”. We’re constantly striving to move forward with our happiness, but in reality we’re just standing still (and perhaps working hard, sweating and looking a bit silly at the same time).

Obviously, striving hard for little effort isn’t really the way most of us want to spend our lives. Luckily, there are better things we can do to improve our happiness, but it also helps to understand how much of our happiness is really in our control.

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Factors of Happiness

What makes us happy? Well that’s a simple question, isn’t it? There’s a simple answer for it, and since we’re all the same, the answer works for all of us. Here it is…

If only it were that simple. Happiness has been debated by scores of philosophers and psychologists for millennia, and by people far as long as we’ve been around. The truth is that it’s a complicated subject, everyone differs to some extent and there’s no magic solution for happiness. In fact, our happiness baselines change over time, what makes us happy changes over time and generally speaking our baselines are better than neutral.

One thing the research has shown us though is that the amount which we can control our happiness might be less than we thought. In fact, in her book, The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says that 50% of our happiness is genetic, 10% is due to external factors and 40% is the result of our attitudes, thoughts and actions.

Though 60% of our happiness is outside of our control, a whole 40% is within our control, and that’s quite a big number really. So what can we do with that 40% to actually increase our happiness?

Taking Action

The things we want to do to make us happy are often not the things that actually would make us happy. In fact, there’s a phrase for this: mis-wanting. As people we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy, so often want these wrong things. All too often we think that a new possession will make us happy, or losing lots of weight, or getting a brilliant new job, or earning more money. The truth is, we hedonically adapt to all these things, returning to that baseline…

So what does actually make a difference? Well, a lot of stuff that is completely free and accessible to everyone can make a big difference to your happiness. You might not like the list though! And just because these things are free and accessible to everyone doesn’t mean they’re easy to do! Most of them involve personal change and changing our behaviours and forming new habits is one of the hardest things we can do.

Some of the specific things you can do now to improve your happiness over time include:

  1. Get a good amount of sleep (8-9 hours per night)
  2. Exercise regularly (aim for 30 minutes, 3 times a week or more
  3. Meditate on a regular basis (daily is great)
  4. Practice gratitude (write down five things you’re grateful for every day in a journal)
  5. Be mindful (savour positive things in your life as they happen)
  6. Kindness (be kind to others more often, being kind boost our happiness a lot)
  7. Connection (nurture our close relationships, and take time to connect with strangers and acquaintances)
  8. Goals (set goals and work towards them)
  9. Develop self awareness (learn more about who you are and learn to accept yourself, flaws and all)

There’s a lot of research on all of these different things that you can do to increase your happiness. We’re not going to cite it all or go into it in too much detail here in this article, but if you search through our site, or the wider internet, you’ll find loads of great evidence for the effectiveness of these actions.

Sometimes putting your shoes on is the hardest part of exercising.

Learning More

You might enjoy our articles on resilience, wellbeing, meditation, goal-setting and the GREAT DREAM personal happiness model.

We’ve also recorded a podcast looking at happiness, from a slightly different perspective that might be helpful.

Lastly, we think Laurie Santos’ free Coursera course, “The Science of Wellbeing” is great. Definitely worth checking out.

The World of Work Project View

Hedonic adaptation is certainly something we can relate to. In fact, part of the reason we’re so curious about happiness and wellbeing and that we write about it so much is we sometimes find it hard to be remain happy. And we know that hedonic adaptation has a lot to do with this. Objectively, we’re very happy. Life is good, we have all the things we could possibly, realistically need for a happy life. Yet sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way. That urge to get back on the treadmill and push for new, happy making magic is strong. 

Sleep is great…

From personal experience, we know that the actions we detailed in this post as ways to improve happiness do work. Some of you will push back against some of them, and some of you will think they’re not relevant for you (“I’m just fine on 5 hours of sleep a night”) and that’s just fine. They’re all good things though, and they all make a difference. 

On a personal level, we find that we’re OK at doing these things when times are a bit tough and we feel we need to invest in our happiness. However, after a little while, they work and we feel better. But here is the danger point. Once we’re feeling happy, we find we jettison these helpful habits. So for us, the real challenge is in building these actions into habits that we prioritize not just when we know we need them, but also when we think we don’t. 

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Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin. November, 2005.

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.

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