Using the principles of hedonic adaptation to increase happiness in your life

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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.

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This book is a great source of other seemingly irrational ideas which can make a difference in your lives

I first came across “Hedonic Adaptation” in Dan Ariely’s masterful book, “The Upside of Irrationality”. If you like this post, then he deserves all the thanks.

6 comments on “Using the principles of hedonic adaptation to increase happiness in your life
  1. The author of this blog piece seems both informed and yet tenative about writing. The following repeated remarks shows the author’s ;lack of confidence

    As always will really appreciate comments and feedback.
    Otherwise, please feel free to kick me the next time you meet me.

    Once you get over this curious retincence, we find that the article is both informative as well as something new. The lack of an image and the lack of url to the original book shows the author is still trying to adapt his blog happiness to a new level, if you may forgive the pun

    Well written and worth a timely read, we look forward to reading more

  2. Well observed and well written. I was once discussing the Bhagvad Gita with some colleagues and that day I learnt that be it any book, every reader has his own interpretation of what the author is trying to say. I haven’t read the book which got you into writing this, but I did enjoy reading what came from your interpretation and personal experience. However, I personally have a very different definition of happiness and when its level rises or falls in any person’s stage of life, which of course, I have learnt through my experiences and interpretations. This might make some deviation and addition to the piece above, more than just being a feedback.
    From a more spiritual perspective, happiness is more of a state of mind. Not that bad experience don’t make you sad, but for some, bouncing back to a “happy state of mind” might be easier compared to others.
    It’s the mental and emotional discipline which can probably help greatly in hopping off from the “Hedonic Treadmill”. But the need to discipline can obviously be realized when one comes to learn that running on this treadmill is needless and extremely exhausting!
    Happiness is also a realization, which can differ for the same person in different stages of his life. The very “base level” that you mentioned might itself change through time due to many factors like experience, learning, exposure etc. In that case, one may not strive to go back to the initial stage of happiness, consciously or subconsciously. Infact , the tendency of the mind to try and bounce back to that base level , however low it may be , can sometimes be a curse and may prevent the person from enjoying the new permanent base level that he has found for himself. Giving in to this tendency and letting the mind play its trick would be like doing injustice to what the circumstance or opportunity has to offer to the person.
    Hence , the mental discipline comes into picture again.
    Yes, when there is a sad experience , one should let the mind absorb it and let it take its time to stabilize. But this may not hold true in all cases. Sometimes a prolonged state of happiness and satisfaction can also lead the mind to look for a change and find reasons to be sad just to break the rhythm! (Strange, but psychologically true).These are the times when it’s not at all worth to let the happiness level sink, instead taking a break and getting out of the situation can actually help see things from a different perspective and most probably help realize that there was no need to feel sad at the first place !
    OR due to past habit of being in a lower base level of happiness, the mind gets so well trained to adjust through the pain and sad experiences that it defines for itself a base level of happiness to be that state itself. When the suffering ends, the mind is clueless and throws tantrums in trying to adjust to the new, painless, genuinely happy state. In times like these , it becomes a task to train the mind and teach it the new base level and probably preparing to jump to an even higher level later on if life has to offer !

    Think about it :)

    • Bravo. This is probably the biggest comment that I have got in all my years of blogging :-)

      Shilu, in this case, it isn’t my own interpretation. This is just a simplified presentation. There is a lot of research and experimentation which has been done on this topic. Some of the things that you have mentioned are consistent with my post. I haven’t touched upon what moves the base level and how it happens,but there is a lot of research literature on that topic. Clinical depression for example, is a classic case of seismic shift in the base level.

      I have also mentioned that the base level is determined by a lot of other factors. Spiritual enlightenment is most likely one of those.

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