Hedonic Adaptation

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In The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky tells us:

One of the great ironies of our quest to become happier is that so many of us focus on changing the circumstances of our lives in the misguided hope that those changes will deliver happiness. In an attempt to allay unhappiness, a recent college graduate may choose a high-paying job in a distant city, a middle-aged divorcée may undergo beautifying cosmetic surgery, or a retired couple may buy a condominium with a view. Unfortunately, all these individuals will likely become only temporarily happier. An impressive body of research now shows that trying to be happy by changing our life situations ultimately will not work. Why do life changes account for so little? Because of a very powerful force that psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Research psychologists have even tried to bottle this experience by investigating it systematically—for example, asking whether people show hedonic adaptation to such significant life events as marriage, sudden wealth, or chronic illness. It turns out they do. It appears that after the wedding husband and wife get a happiness boost for about two years and then simply return to their baseline in happiness, their set point. Less than a year after receiving the potentially life-changing news of winning the lottery, they reported being no more happy than regular folks who had not experienced the sudden windfall. So the bad news about hedonic adaptation is that it ultimately dampens your happiness and satisfaction after any positive event or uplift.”

The good news is:

Hedonic adpatation is extremely useful when bad things happen. Some studies of hedonic adaptation show, for instance, that we have a phenomenal ability to recover much of our happiness after a debilitating illness or accident. Do you think that having end-stage kidney disease would reduce your capacity for happiness? Imagine having to endure nine hours of hemodialysis per week, during which you are attached to a machine filtering your blood. Imagine having to adhere to a strict diet, limiting meat, salt, and even daily fluids. Most people are positive that this situation would make them quite unhappy. It turned out that the renal disease patients were just as happy as the healthy controls.”

Sonja also tells us: “gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation.”

So we hedonically adapt to good and bad things. Adapting to bad things is great for resilience but not so much for positive life events. But it turns out practicing gratitude can help us sidestep adapting to the good stuff.

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