Human Nature #19: Hedonic Adaptation

Imagine you’re on vacation in some exotic tropical location. You relax on the beach and take in the amazing view. The next day, you do the same but find it isn’t as amazing as the first day – so you add some aged scotch to the equation and like magic the feeling is back. Same thing the next day, but this time you add a cigar, or a massage, or something else to boost the experience. Each day, the same thing. That great feeling you are searching for requires more and more just to stay the same.

Everything is amazing and nobody is happy. The brilliant Louis CK bit on the subject goes something like this: “I was sitting on an airplane that had high-speed internet – the newest thing. It breaks down shortly into the flight. The guy next to me goes ‘this is bullshit’. How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.”

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as hedonic adaptation. It is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative changes in one’s life. In Daniel Kahneman’s words:

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.

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