This is my first attempt at a post on psychology. Over the years, I have developed a deep interest in the subject and have done a lot of reading. I think it is a fascinating subject and far more interesting than most of the stuff I studied (or pretended to be studying) in college. I have learnt some really useful stuff and I am now ready to talk about it. As always will really appreciate comments and feedback.
The first thing I am going to talk about is called “hedonic adaptation”. This term is a jargon lover’s delight and would have been very handy in another age – back when I was trying to act all articulate and erudite to establish my credentials as an IIM graduate.
I am sure you are thinking at this stage that I am going to bore you with a long article full of heavy terminology. But trust me, you will learn something useful at the end of this article. Otherwise, please feel free to kick me the next time you meet me.
“Hedonistic Adaptation” is the tendency of human beings to quickly return to a stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or developments in their lives. They quickly adapt to their new situation and the excitement or sadness of the new event or experience wears off over time.
What this means in plain English is that we have a fixed, base level of happiness which is influenced by a lot of factors. A sad or happy event decreases or increases the sadness or happiness level temporarily. But gradually, the hedonic adaptation starts to kick in and we are no longer euphoric (or disappointed) about the new state of affairs. We are back to our normal level of happiness.
Research has shown that this happens almost always – even in case the event is life impacting, say marriage, or the birth of child or the death of close family member. The time to return to the base level might be a little longer, but eventually the person does get back to the old level of happiness.
It has also been established that we are incredibly bad at predicting this adaptation. We do a lot of things assuming they will increase the happiness in our lives or make us happy for a really long time. For example, we buy a new car. We are very happy at first but then the adaptation happens and we are back to our pre-purchase level of happiness. We then buy something else to make ourselves happy. This cycle, which is nothing but an endless attempt to increase our overall happiness is called the “Hedonic Treadmill”. We continue to run but don’t get anywhere.
So, what is the takeaway from our understanding of this adaptation process?
Adaptation is clearly a mixed blessing. It is great when it comes to dealing with sadness or unpleasant experiences. We are able to adapt to them pretty fast and overcome the sad feeling which we were experiencing initially. But when it comes to happy things or pleasant experiences, we don’t want this adaptation process to happen. So what do we do?
We can try and disrupt the adaptation process. This can be done by taking a break from the happiness or pleasure inducing activity. After the break, when we resume the activity, we experience the initial happiness all over again. If we hadn’t taken the break, we would have adapted and gone back to our original state of happiness. This sounds counter-intuitive – why should we disrupt a happy activity? Wouldn’t we want to enjoy it in one uninterrupted go?
The answer is no and there are many experiments which have clearly demonstrated that. You can try and experience it for yourself. I will share my own experience. I have watched an entire season of my favourite sitcom in one sitting. And I have taken a break and then started watching it again. I have shopped for 4 books at one go and shopped for two books each in two shopping sessions. And trust me, having two shopping sessions is almost twice as good as one session.
This counter intuitive insight is also useful for sad cases. Don’t let anything interrupt your unhappy or unpleasant activities. We typically feel like taking a break when we are doing something we don’t like. We reckon that a break is good and will relax us. What we forget is that we have already become attuned to the unhappiness and it has probably stopped bothering us. By taking a break, we will have to start all over again and experience the pain once again. I remember taking cricket breaks while preparing for exams. It was meant to refresh me. On the contrary, once I started playing, I found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to start studying again.
The key learning is very simple. Break the happy experiences or events into smaller parts and experience elation many more times. Club the painful activities and save yourself the trouble of repeated pain.
This is something which works. I have tried it successfully myself.