The Perils of Hedonic Adaptation

You’re probably familiar with the term “hedonic adaptation.” It was introduced by researchers, Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein in 1999, and has been used to describe how people adapt to circumstances (both negative and positive) in their lives after a certain period of time. It’s more commonly used for seemingly positive changes – e.g. new technologies, increase in wealth, etc. – and how we tend to take them for granted after a certain period of time. In a 1978 study, researchers discovered that after an initial period of exhilaration, the happiness levels of lottery winners ended up about where they were before winning. Human beings are very good at hedonic adaptation.

It wasn’t too long ago when our ancestors had to hand wash all their clothes, chop wood to keep warm, or collect water from the well. We take all of this for granted now, of course, and we’re lucky to be living in a time where disease, famine, and war are afterthoughts for most places in the world.

In the consumption-driven society that we live in today hedonic adaptation might just be our biggest enemy. If the value of ourselves and our society is reflected on consumption, there is no amount of consumption that will be enough when hedonic adaptation kicks into gear. If we let hedonic adaptation go without being noticed, we risk ourselves getting stuck on a treadmill of mindless consumption. We will desire more for the sake of desiring more. There’s obvious consequences here around our environment, our cultures, and our individual well-being.

Stoic philosophy has a way to combat this glitch in our psychology: negative visualization. If we imagined losing all that we have currently – our health, our wealth, our relationships, our work – we would be able to create more space of gratitude and appreciate for what we have now. If a father were to imagine losing his daughter, he might spend more quality time with her. If an athlete were to imagine losing her ability to use her legs, she might spend more time appreciating the abilities she has right now.

Sure, it might sound a bit like playing mind games but it works. This also isn’t to say walking around all day thinking about the worst case scenario about everything. It’s about taking a few moments each week to reflect on what you already have so we can keep our hedonic adaptation at bay.

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