Holding onto Joy: Hedonic Adaptation and How to Combat It

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As I continue my blogging adventure, I’m always on the lookout for topics to write about. I wrote a post on cognitive biases. One of my few but great and loyal followers left a comment on hedonic adaptation.

Despite it not being directly related to productivity, hedonic adaptation has everything to do with happiness, particularly with achieving lasting joy and satisfaction in life. Being happy can boost your productivity, so I ran with it.

Let’s get into it.

What is Hedonic Adaptation?

This is the theory that humans tend to return to a stable level of happiness quickly, regardless of major life changes and positive and negative events. According to this theory, people have a set happiness level. It doesn’t matter what happens in our lives, we will always return to that baseline level after a time, as the excitement or misery of an event fades. It’s sometimes called the hedonic treadmill because we always end up back in the same emotional state that we were in before we began.

Hedonic adaptation is what gives us the ability to adapt to the ever-changing situations in our lives. It allows us to come down from emotional highs, recover from emotional lows and regain emotional balance.  

You will get back onto the hedonic treadmill to realise your hopes and dreams. Your ability to adapt allows us to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It also allows us to move on from past events and instead confront the present.

Many mechanisms are thought to underpin it including cognitive processes and certain behaviours such as avoiding particular situations, for instance. Later, we’ll talk about the controversy around this theory.  

Next, we’ll look at the three main elements of hedonic adaptation.

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Three Elements of Hedonic Adaptation

There are three simple elements that play a role in this process.

Changing adaptation levels.

This element comes into play when something happens that causes your happiness to rise or fall slightly before returning to your baseline level. From then on, whenever you encounter the situation or event that triggered the change, you’ll experience the same shift in your happiness level. 

Let’s take a look at an example. Say a writer pitches an idea for a feature article to a magazine and the editor hires her to write the piece. When she’s hired, she experiences a spurt of happiness and joy. As she goes through the process of researching, writing, rewriting and editing the piece, she reverts back to her previous level of happiness. Nonetheless, when she submits another piece to another publication which gets excepted, she again experiences a similar surge of happiness.  

That’s how changing adaptation levels work within the hedonic treadmill.

Desensitisation.

After you’ve experienced changing adaptation levels, you begin to become desensitised to a given set of circumstances. As a consequence, you’ll no longer have the same perspective of something as another might have of a similar situation. If you’ve become familiar with something, you’ve likely become desensitised to it.

Say you live in a house with three dogs. You may have stopped noticing the doggy smell, and be unruffled by fur and dog hair, but when you invite others into your house, they might notice the smell of your pets and be turned off by it. In cases such as these, becoming desensitised may be something to avoid.

Sensitisation.

The third element of hedonic adaptation is almost the polar opposite of desensitisation. When you are sensitised to a particular situation, you experience notable emotional reactions in those situations or to those events. Sensitisation occurs when we become accustomed to something we haven’t been previously used to. Most of the time, sensitisation isn’t a bad thing, though it can be in some situations. Everyone has been sensitised to particular events or situations, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Imagine you earn £50,000 a year. Now imagine that you suddenly find yourself earning ten times that amount annually. Soon enough you would become accustomed to your new income and increased wealth. You might consider changing your lifestyle, buying some property or looking into investing in other assets or companies. Over time you’re bound to get used to being ten times richer than you were before. In other words, you become sensitised to your new level of wealth.

There is evidence to suggest that hedonic adaptation to positive experiences is swifter than for negative experiences.

Incidents of Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic adaptation manifests itself in various ways. Here’re a few examples.

  • Those who win the lottery often revert to their original level of contentment after about a year when the novelty has worn thin.
  • People involved in serious accidents who sustain life altering injuries recover their former emotional state after the initial devastation.
  • This process also happens when we eat. Research indicates that the first bite of food is considered to be more delicious than subsequent bites and you get used to pleasure quickly, so soon enough, you don’t get the same surge of happiness as you got when you first tasted it.  

Now it’s time to look at the controversy around hedonic adaptation.

Controversy Surrounding the Hedonic Treadmill

Not everyone is convinced by the theory of hedonic adaptation, with some arguing that major life events, such as the end of a relationship or the loss of a job can actually impact your baseline level of happiness. This idea is backed by evidence from Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener suggesting that some negative events, if severe enough (loss of employment, for example) can permanently alter our baseline level of contentment. Whether someone recovers all of their former happiness depends on the individual, thus critics of hedonic adaptation argue that the idea that everyone bounces back to their baseline level of contentment is a huge assumption and generalisation that doesn’t account for all the factors involved.

For instance, the baseline happiness level of someone living with a mental illness may be improved as a consequence of therapy or medication. There are case studies that support the theory of hedonic adaptation and others that do not.

There may be times when you want to minimise or delay hedonic adaptation so you can hold onto feelings of excitement, enthusiasm or joy for longer. Let’s investigate.

Holding onto Joy

You can minimise the process of becoming sensitised and desensitised to specific circumstances. Introducing variety into your life can help you hold onto joy or even increase the happiness and excitement that often accompanies positive life events, like marriage or increasing wealth.

Daily mundane routines are ripe for hedonic adaptation. If you change things up every so often in your day-to-day life, you can mitigate the effects of the hedonic treadmill, and cause an influx of pleasure rather than returning to your set happiness level.

Remembering to be grateful for the things you have in life, rather than feeling disappointed or resentful because you don’t have something can also help combat hedonic adaptation and keep you happy. Taking things in your life for granted can often land you right back on the relentless hedonic treadmill.  Soon, we’ll look at what more you can do to minimise the effects of it. For now, let’s look at the two main forms of happiness.

Eudaimonia and Hedonism: The Sources of Pleasure

There are two key kinds of happiness, Eudaimonia and Hedonism.

Eudaimonia.

This type of happiness is based on the feelings of fulfilment you get from doing purposeful work and engaging in meaningful activities. When you achieve something worthwhile, such as graduating from law school or getting a promotion at work, this is the type of pleasure you’ll experience.

Eudaimonia is less influenced by hedonic adaptation, because it takes longer for this form of pleasure to fade.

Hedonism.  

Hedonism is all about the pursuit of pleasure. It’s the kind of pleasure we get when we avoid doing things we dislike and do things that make us happy. It’s the pleasure derived from enjoying ourselves, like when we indulge in our favourite meal or sweet treat.

It’s important to remember that both sources of pleasure can help you develop more resilience and enable you to cope with negative life experiences.  Next, let’s explore ways you can lessen the effects of the hedonic treadmill.

Ways to Minimise Hedonic Adaptation

Here are some things you can do to combat the effects of the hedonic adaptation process and increase your chances of staying happier for longer.

  1. Mindfulness.

You can become better at living in the moment if you practice mindfulness each day. Doing so makes it easier to identify what’s essential in life and what’s not. This form of meditation can foster feelings of wellbeing and make it more likely that you’ll view things in a positive light.

  • Focus on personal development.

One of the best ways you can cultivate a deep sense of wellbeing is by concentrating on your personal development. You can do this by working towards personal goals and imagining a bright future for yourself. If you pursue goals you’re passionate about as well as good at, you’ll have a great chance of increasing your long-term happiness.

  • Be kind and compassionate.

Being kind, generous and compassionate helps improve your opinion of yourself and thereby increases your level of personal satisfaction. Displaying these qualities also helps improve your standing with others.

The consensus is that people who help other people are generally happier and have a more profound sense of wellbeing than others.

  • Be grateful.

We discussed this briefly when we talked about holding onto joy. If you often show how thankful you are for the good things that have happened in your life, you frequently get pleasure from recalling positive experiences in your past. By showing gratitude, you slow the process of hedonic adaptation by being able to repeatedly remember positive experiences and can increase your capacity for long-term happiness.

  • Have an optimistic outlook.

Someone optimistic usually views the future in a positive light. Possessing this view of the world makes it easier to enjoy life and derive satisfaction from things, both of which lead to improved physical and mental health.

  • Accept positive and negative emotions.

It’s vital to embrace negative emotions as well as positive ones, even though the former can be tricky for some. If you find it difficult to accept negative emotions, you might be tempted to avoid them. This can lead to psychological problems because whilst doing so can bring you brief respite, by pushing things away to be dealt with at a later date, you may set yourself up for more torment and grief than you would have gone through if you’d confronted your negative emotions straightaway.

  • Set and pursue worthwhile, meaningful goals.

We’ve already talked about how doing meaningful activities and working towards worthwhile goals can bring you happiness which lasts longer than hedonism, so leads to increased personal satisfaction. Your brain often ends up getting rid of less meaningful goals anyway. This might involve doing something as simple as trying to learn something new each day.

  • Cultivate better relationships.

Building closer, deeper and stronger relationships with others help widen and strengthen your social support network, which you can rely on in times of need. So, devoting more time to developing long-term relationships can help you lead a longer, happier, more fulfilled life.

Hedonic Adaptation and Productivity

Before we wrap things up, it’s worth noting that if being happier makes you more likely to be highly motivated and productive, it makes sense to develop some of the qualities and traits we’ve talked about. Even if you only try one way of slowing the hedonic treadmill, you may increase your potential for lasting happiness and — by extension — your ability to remain productive for longer periods of time.

The Wrap Up

Learning to appreciate and enjoy what you have in life is the secret to achieving long-term happiness. After all, if you always want more, you won’t be able to remain content for long. We’ve covered the theory of the hedonic treadmill, talked about the two main types of happiness and touched upon the main criticism of that theory.

Now you know a little about hedonic adaptation, hopefully, you’ve got the confidence to use a few of the methods I’ve shared to slow the process of hedonic adaptation and remain happier for longer. So start setting yourself up to live a happier, more productive life today.  

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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