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Hedonic Adaptation: why happiness fades and how to hold on to it

Hedonic adaptation sounds complex, but the experience will be very familiar to you. Here’s how it works: something happens (eg: a pay rise, getting married, a promotion) and as a result you feel good (or great!). Then, over time, the feeling fades. That’s hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation definition

The process by which people return to their baseline of happiness after a positive or negative event.

A few things to note from the definition:

  • It’s a process, and so it takes place over time and can be influenced (more on that later).
  • The definition assumes we all have a stable ‘baseline’ of happiness in our lives, the research show this to be true.
  • And finally, the good news, this process of hedonic adaptation applies to negative events too. It also allows us to recover from negative events that have pulled us down.

Examples of hedonic adaptation

Here are a few examples of hedonic adaptation from my life:

This is a classic example: last year I received a larger-than-expected bonus from SAS. It felt good. Happy, happy, happy. Suddenly I had more money in my savings account. Whooohooo! The feeling faded within the week.

More recently, we moved to a new flat which has access to a pool. Fantastic! I can swim during the summer, work on my tan, and teach Thomas to swim (which has been a goal for some time). The first time we went down to the pool it was exciting, we reveled in the experience. After a few visits, it’s still fun, but not so thrilling.

Another example is something that I experience a little more often. I work in L&D and mastering new training programs is part of my role. I get a rush every time. It feels good to have a new asset to share. Again, unfortunately, the feeling fades within a few days.

These examples of hedonic adaptation set up another important idea, the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is an apt metaphor. It conjures up the image of constantly running but getting nowhere. It’s about constantly grasping for the next ‘happiness’: the new phone, the promotion, the bigger house. We get it, but then it’s not enough, we want the next shiny distraction.

It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass

This is hedonic adaptation at work, always bringing you back to your baseline happiness. The treadmill is not the solution.

The flipside, recovering from negative events

Hedonic adaptation also helps us to recover from negative events.

One of the most traumatic experiences of my life was my son Tom’s autism diagnosis. Tom was just 18 months, and his diagnosis completely shook our world. It was scary. Suddenly we had a whole heap of news things to worry about: would he ever speak (he was non-verbal at that time), how would he develop, would he be able to live an independent life or require life-long care?

Slowly we learnt more about autism, planned our way forward, got Thomas the therapy he needed, and recovered. Our proactive approach helped, and hedonic adaptation did the rest.

Ands that’s the benefit, the evolutionary ‘why’. Hedonic adaptation is a survival mechanism. It enables us to recover and keep moving forward.

Delay hedonic adaptation to stay happier longer

When an event takes place in our life, that boosts our happiness, there are two main ways to sustain those positive emotions:

  • Use savoring and reflection to return to and re-experience the event. For example, if you’ve recently got married it’s likely you’ve experienced a boost. Taking time to re-watch the videos, reflect on the photos, and consciously recall the emotions will help sustain that boost of emotion.
  • ‘Reinvest’ in experiences that sustain happiness. Let’s imaging you’ve won the lottery. It will feel good! but not for too long. Having all that money will soon be your new ‘baseline’. Waking each morning with the money in your account, your not going to have the same buzz that you did. You could buy stuff. Sure. But how’s that going to work out? You’ll be happier if you use the money for good. And then go back to the first point, savor and reflect on the experience.
Written by colinwbates
I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and be happier. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog! You can also find me on LinkedIn.

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