Hedonic Adaptation: The Problem With Getting Everything You Want

Laying on the warm-up floor in the artistic tent, I look up at the rings that are rigged from the ceiling. I don’t want to warm up on the boy’s rings, but in order to use mine, I’d have to bring down these rings and re-rig mine. What. A. Pain.

Just over a year ago, I was warming up on a cheap, plastic, thin mat from the dollar store, atop a mound of dirt and gravel, outside in the middle of winter, with the wetness from the ground seeping through the mat.

And there I laid, in a carpeted, temperature-controlled, fully training-ready circus building complaining about nothing.

How did this happen?

Hedonic adaptation, also commonly known as the, ‘hedonic treadmill,’ is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.¹ Basically, humans usually return to a baseline ‘normal’ level of happiness even after huge ups-and-downs.

We get used to new environments and stimuli, the excitement eventually wears off, and we return back to where we started emotionally. This happens with everything. New jobs, new purchases, new achievements. This is also why we find ourselves wanting more, reaching higher, and wanting to go further.

It’s a dangerous concept. Potentially, it means that no matter how much we have, what goals we reach, or whatever incredible feats we execute, it won’t be enough.

This is the power of time.

The day I received the acceptance email from Stanford University, it was euphoric. An emotional ‘high.’ Fast-forward to a month into freshman year of college, and that euphoria was gone. The joys that came with the success of acceptance into one of the most prestigious universities in the world had dissipated, and my emotions were now enthralled in my new college life. I had (surprisingly quickly) returned to my ‘base level’ of happiness.

Even though I had made drastic life gains and major steps toward my ultimately desired future, with time, it evens out. Then you have to look for the next thing that will make you happy.

It’s a major realization. Whatever you believe will make you happy, that fancy car or a house with kids… even if you attain it, there is no happily-ever-after. You may be happy for awhile, but that happiness will fade as the days pass and you get use to your new life. You may find that the things that brought you joy in the past, no longer has the same effect.

“Too much of a good thing,” they say. And they’re right.

Another related term is, ‘experience stretching.’ It’s a hypothesis that too much of a good thing reduces – even kills – the pleasure we once took in something when we only had a little of it.2

Take for example, a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Fluffy, light, and beautifully glazed, this piece of pure sugary perfection sure seems delicious. But what if you had to eat 300? Sooner or later, it’s not going to taste so good anymore, no matter how much you “luuuuuurv donuts.”

This natural ‘happiness-level reset’ has positive applications as well.

For example, take the loss of a loved one. Our lives would cease as well if the feelings of grief and sadness never subsided.

Would we choose to act differently if we knew that in all cases, “This too shall pass”?

So I wonder, is there a way to combat this phenomenon? A way to continue feeling joy from our achievements, or happiness from that new pair of shoes? There is!

Gratitude.

That’s my theory. It’s as simple as it seems. Remember your situation a few years ago, even a few months ago. Remember it vividly, the feelings you felt, the experiences you’ve had, and see that where you are now. Compare yourself. What luxuries do you have that others do not? Compare today with the worst day you’ve ever had. Today doesn’t seem so bad anymore, hey?

I challenge you to be grateful for 10 days. It’s really simple. Every morning, as soon as you wake up, before you hit snooze on your alarm, list three things that you are grateful for. That’s it. You don’t have to think hard about it, or even come up with new ones every day. One time I repeated “I’m grateful for air conditioning” for an entire week in a row.

Try it, and let me know how it goes.

Let me know what you’re grateful for.

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9/31 #YearOfChallenge

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