Hedonic Adaptation: the dangers (and joys) of the new normal

Consider this. You are incarcerated.

Suddenly, you go from the comfort of your home and the freedom of your every day, to being confined to a seven-foot cell. Would you care if that was a nine-foot cell instead?
Chances are, you probably wouldn’t see much point in trying to get the “bigger” cell, as it wouldn’t much alleviate the loss of freedom and personal space. And that’s what a study on adaptation suggests, too.

But here’s the interesting twist: as you get adapted to living in the seven-foot cell, two things would happen. Your happiness would increase, along with your perceived value of the larger cell.

This is the power of the new normal.

Adapting both ways

We think of ‘the normal’ as a stable baseline for our level of happiness and fulfilment. A universal, firm concept. But ‘the normal’ is actually very fluid, and very personal.
It adapts to our expectations, as we adapt to our circumstances, in a phenomenon called Hedonic Adaptation.

Normal changes all the time.
Driving may feel normal to you now, but how did it feel the first time you drove?
You are taller now than when you were a small child. Does it feel any less normal?
There was even a time when you considered it normal to let your parents wipe your baby bottom.

Adaptation is a great skill, built right into our DNA.
When circumstances change, our expectations change with us.

But Hedonic Adaptation goes both ways.

In a 1978 psychological study, researchers evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners and recently injured paraplegics, comparing them to those of the general population.
As you guessed, the lottery winners experienced a spike in their happiness levels immediately after their win, whereas the paralised accident victims experienced a dip.
But within (only) two months, both groups had returned very close to the average level of happiness of the control population.

And, when asked about their expectations for the future, and to rate their everyday experiences, both groups reported very close levels of happiness, with the accident victims having a slightly more positive view about the future.

hedonic-adaptation-chart

As the two groups adapted to their new circumstances, Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, establishing a “new normal” with updated expectations.

Whether it’s a new flat, a relationship, a higher salary, a new car, moving to a new city, all these things tend to become normal, fast.
Seeking happiness through buying things especially, though intuitive in a consumeristic society, can turn into a trap. As you get used to the short-term rush of buying something exciting, you have to continually raise your game as it gets swallowed by the new normal.
Reaching the same level of happiness requires more and more energy and money.

Hedonic Adaptation can be a blessing, or a curse.

Hedonic wellbeing

Let’s take a step back.
The word hedonism derives from the Greek word for pleasure, hēdonē.
Hedonic wellbeing is focused on maximising pleasure and minimising pain. This is done through increasing positive emotions (like excitement, relief, pride, and of course, happiness), and limiting negative states (such as fear, hate, and sadness).

The issue is that not only these emotions are dependent on fleeting circumstances: we adapt to them until they’re no longer exciting. They become the new normal.
This makes us slaves to a constant game of catching up, like running backwards on an airport’s travelator.

hedonic adaptation

Is there a way to cope with Hedonic Adaptation?

How to use hedonic adaptation to your advantage

Deliberate scarcity

Taking away what you consider normal for a period of time, and adding artificial constraints, is a great way to actually notice it. After the break, the contrast will make the usual feel special again.

For example, I like to sleep on the floor once a month, practice a 60-hour fast every so often, and add constraints periodically. No matter how simple it is, having breakfast after nearly 3 days without food makes that breakfast feel and taste amazing.

Appreciate abundance

I’m a big fan of practising abundance: raising the standard that you ask from yourself is a great way to keep raising your game. It also contrasts negative thoughts and scarcity mindset.

However, I like to be mindful of what I am doing and appreciate that abundance in my life. Which brings me to…

Practice gratitude to keep the focus on small things

Gratitude is a simple practice that can have a massive impact  on your everyday life.
Some of my favourite tools to integrate it into my everyday life are gratitude walks, being present in what I do, and the simple and effective 5 Minute Journal.

Maximise enjoyment

Knowing what makes you happy and fulfilled is key to maximising enjoyment.
It’s easy to follow what other people see as positive, only to find out (or never quite understand) that it’s not really for us. Fulfilment requires self-awareness.
Once you know what make you feel better, go all in and have fun with it, ignoring those activities that only have a marginal effect.

Remove, don’t add

When it comes to buying new things, I love to use a question that I learnt from the wise Mr Money Moustache.
“Will it remove a negative or add a positive?”
Removing a negative, like replacing a painfully slow washing machine with a new, fast one, will have a direct and long-lasting impact on something you already notice daily.
Adding a positive, like buying a new car for no real reason, will create short-lived excitement, and add unpredictable complexities, like the need for a new garage or the fear of damaging it, that will actually result in more negatives.

Fleeting vs long-term

To contrast the traps of Hedonic Adaptation, think long-term.

The notion of eudaimonic well-being has been accompanying the hedonic view for many centuries.
Instead of focusing on subjective and fleeting emotions, eudaemonic well-being derives from experiencing personal growth, facing new challenges, and a sense of purpose and contribution.

Unlike the emotions behind hedonic well-being, these continue over time and build on constant progress, rather than being isolated events. And, unlike spending on things, investing in growth experiences will keep paying back in happiness and skills.

Hedonic Adaptation turns most changes into the new normal.
To turn fleeting happiness into long-lasting fulfilment, train yourself to appreciate the present experience and think long term, beyond yourself.

— Matt

PS: learn how to shortcut your personal growth through other people.