Hedonic Adaptation – How to keep Happiness from fading

I found an interesting article about how to keep happiness from fading. It was written by Heidi Grant Halvorson, an author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. It discusses about hedonic adaptation. Basically it is based on a paper by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky who addressed two reason why happiness cannot last. You can read the full article in this link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/heidigranthalvorson/2012/08/14/how-to-keep-happiness-from-fading/

How to Keep Happiness From Fading

By: Heidi Grant Halvorson,

No matter how miserable you are feeling at the moment, if you look back, there have surely been events in your life that have made you happy.  Maybe the time you bought your first car, or the time you received that long-desired promotion.  Or the time you lost fifteen pounds and were able to get back into your favorite jeans without cutting off your circulation.  When good things happen, we feel positive emotions – like excitement, relief, pride, and of course, happiness.  These feelings are essential for our well-being.

But the problem is, happiness doesn’t usually last.  The excitement of that first car purchase wears off, the thrill of the promotion gives way to the anxiety of handling the responsibilities that came with it.  Sure, you think, it’s nice to be a size 8 again.  But it would be really great to be a size 6…

Psychologists call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation – the idea is that no matter how good something makes us feel (or, for the record, how bad), most of the time we drift back to where we started, emotionally-speaking. One often-cited study famously showed that despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later.  The same tendency to return to “baseline” has been shown to occur after marriage, voluntary job changes, and promotions – the kinds of things we usually expect to change our happiness and well-being for the better in a permanent way.

Why can’t we make the happiness last?  Psychologists (and renown happiness experts) Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky argue in a recent paper that our hedonic adaption occurs for two reasons.

When a positive change first occurs (say, you move into a great new house), there are usually lots of positive events happening as a result.  You get to break in that new six-burner range, take a long bath in your first soaking tub, and appreciate the roominess of your new garage. But over time, there are fewer positive events to experience, because you get used to all the home’s features, and after a while you just don’t notice them anymore.  With fewer positive events, and thus fewer positive emotions (excitement, pride, happiness), your newfound well-being can’t be sustained.

The second reason happiness fades is that even when positive events continue – if, for instance, your fitness and healthy eating habits leave you looking great, and this results in lots of new opportunities for romance on a regular basis –  the change begins to simply be seen as the “new normal.”   And as a result, your aspiration level shifts – you feel like you need to look even better.  Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has referred to this process as a kind of “satisfaction treadmill.” Because we continuously shift our standards upward once we’ve reached them, we’ve got to keep running in order to feel satisfied again.

But don’t despair – it is possible to make happiness last, by slowing the adaptation process, or even halting it all together.  Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found in a recent study that two anti-adaptation tools were effective in sustaining gains in happiness over time:  variety and appreciation.

Variety is, as we all know, the spice of life.  But it’s also a potent weapon against  adaptation, because we don’t get “used to” positive events when our experiences are novel, or unexpected.  When, on the other hand, a positive experience is repetitive – when you know exactly what to expect – you don’t get the same kick out of it.

Positive changes that are experienced in a variety of ways are more likely to lead to lasting happiness.  So you’ll be happier with your new spouse if you spend time doing new things together, rather than getting stuck in a boring routine.  You’ll be happier at your job if you are able to tackle new tasks and challenges – if there is some day-to-day variety in what you do.   You’ll be happier with your soaker tub if you run out and get yourself some new bubble bath, or try lighting candles (or maybe ask someone to join you in it.)

The happiness you get from doing anything will fade if you do it the same way every day, so mix things up.  Think about this before making a change because you believe it will make you happier – will you be able to experience whatever it is in a variety of ways?   Because if the answer is no, don’t expect the happiness to last.

Tool #2, appreciation, is in many ways the opposite of adaptation – it’s going out of your way to focus on something, rather than taking it for granted or letting it fade into the background.  Appreciating can mean paying attention or noticing, but it is even more powerful when you take it further – when you savor something, delighting in its qualities and relishing how it makes you feel, or when you experience gratitude, a sense of being fortunate for being in your current circumstances compared to others, or compared to where you have been in the past.  When we appreciate our positive experiences, when we turn our mind’s eye toward them again and again in joy and wonder, we don’t just make our happiness last – we kick it up a notch, too.

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have.  In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned.  The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

5 thoughts on “Hedonic Adaptation – How to keep Happiness from fading

  1. Thanks for this really interesting article. I particularly liked the explanation of the different ways in which our happiness fades – so far I have not really considered there being two reasons. This, however, makes a lot of sense and is definitely worth mentioning.
    I also liked the focus on how to sustain our happiness, which is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Doing a research project on hedonic adaptation and generally being interested in this research area, I have read a book by Elizabeth Dunn, called ‘Happy Money’. She describes ways of how to sustain happiness through specific purchases – eg, buy experiences instead of physical items (like a new television) as this purchase will not be subject to adaptation.
    As I was reading this articles I thought about simple ways to address both solutions (variety and appreciation) given. Variety is obviously a big one, and, I think, quite easily achieved. Move your furniture around, buy new pillow cases for your lounge, buy flowers for your loved one at random times – don’t do it on a regular basis, like every second Friday of the month, as she/he will begin to expect it (wave good-bye to the notion of variety).
    Appreciation should also be quite achievable, as long as we keep remembering to engage in it. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of taking things for granted. I therefore go out of my way to thank people for their efforts (even if it is their responsibility, like my partner bringing out the rubbish). I really believe that this acknowledgement makes a big difference in peoples’ relationships and reminds them about why their friendship is great.
    Both variety and appreciation, I believe, can easily be implemented in most peoples’ lives – why not give it a try and see if it works!

    • Hi Lena, thank you for your comment. I do agree with you. My co-author and I conducted a research about happiness during dispute in Sabah. We found that people tend to consume more during dispute rather than during the peace condition. Dan Ariely called it as artificial happiness. Interestingly, we found also that optimistic personality is always happy even though they are in conflict situation. We found also religious intensity does not have any significant relationship with happiness 🙂
      Anyway, I WAS planning to do research in hyperbolic discounting once, but I left it cold now 🙂

  2. Pingback: On Happiness and Street Photography | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide

  3. Pingback: Happy With Less: Try Living With One Less Desire | Ken's Philosophy Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s