Here’s a fun thought experiment: think back to your life 5 or 10 years ago. Try to remember what you were really striving for at that time. Maybe a better job, a more comfortable living space, an 8-minute mile… You surely thought that you would be so happy if only you had that one thing in your life.
Now fast forward to the moment you achieved that goal. You were probably thrilled to finally be rid of all of your problems, and you spent a few weeks riding the high of your newfound happiness.
But over time, the thrill wore off, didn’t it? You stopped being so happy and started feeling pretty much normal again. Your mind started worrying about other things. Even though you had solved one problem, there were plenty more to take its place. You found something else that needed fixing, something else to strive for… and you ended up somewhere within 10% as happy as you’ve ever been. (More on that later.)
So, what’s going on? Why can’t our brains just stay happy after an improvement?
It’s all because of hedonic adaptation, and today we’re going to talk about what that is, why it’s always fucking over our hopes for happiness, and how we can turn it around to our advantage.
What is hedonic adaptation?
Hedonic adaptation is your brain’s tendency to adjust over time to any positive or negative changes in your environment. Basically, your brain is constantly re-calibrating its neutral state. Once it identifies that the new circumstance is there to stay, it stops being as thrilling, and your brain moves on to other concerns.
Usually, this means seeking out the next improvement to be made: the next big purchase, the next raise, the next weight loss milestone. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as the hedonic treadmill—you keep moving forward, but you don’t arrive anywhere. This explains the lifestyle creep most folks experience as they advance in their careers and their income increases: things that once felt luxurious now feel commonplace, and you have to seek out newer, more expensive items to replace the feeling of excitement you once got from more modest thrills.
In athletic terms, the hedonic treadmill means that you won’t be happy with your current personal record forever—as soon as you’ve leveled up, it’s time to start pushing toward the next goal.
While it sucks that you don’t naturally retain the excitement of your life upgrades, there’s a positive flip side: your brain also adjusts pretty quickly to downgrades, too. For example, if you need to move to a smaller home, it may feel cramped and unpleasant at first, but after a few months, the small apartment is the new normal.
As it turns out, only about 10% of your happiness is due to your external circumstances. That’s why lottery winners experience a spike in happiness right away, but then find themselves no happier than everybody else a year after they collected their winnings. It’s also why people earning $160,000 a year aren’t twice as happy as people earning $80,000 a year, and people living in 2500 sq. ft. houses aren’t twice as happy as people living in 1250 sq. ft. houses.
It’s easy to imagine why your brain simply couldn’t keep up with experiencing pure elation for an indefinite amount of time after you experience some improvement in your life. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, that could potentially be pretty bad for your survival. Your ancient ancestors needed to be somewhat dissatisfied and on alert for things that need improvement; otherwise, they could be totally blindsided by a disaster because they were so caught up in the thrill of their shiny new spear.
But hedonic adaptation doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of constantly chasing the next big thing and never finding satisfaction.
In fact, simply knowing about hedonic adaptation can help you make decisions that will actually improve your happiness and fitness levels.
How to hack hedonic adaptation
Knowing that your brain constantly adapts to your circumstances, you can selectively insert circumstances into your life that will lead to long-term improvement, knowing that you will inevitably get used to the new normal. (Anyone who practices Stoicism will notice some familiar themes here! Combatting hedonic adaptation involves voluntary discomfort and objectivity.) You can also recognize when hedonic adaptation is negatively influencing your behavior and choose to control your actions from a logical standpoint instead.
Here are seven ideas to try if you want to stop hedonic adaptation from sabotaging your happiness.
1. Embrace the uncomfortable—it won’t hurt you
If there’s a fitness or life goal you’ve been avoiding starting because it seems unpleasant, this is the perfect way for you to apply your new knowledge of hedonic adaptation. Want to wake up earlier to go running? Join a new gym with a bunch of strangers? Start a side hustle that will take up some of your free time?
Don’t stress about the pain of the early alarm clock, the awkwardness of being the new person, or how much you’ll miss watching Netflix every night. The unpleasantness will fade, and it will be your new normal very soon.
Then you’ll simply be left with the long-term benefits from your new routine, which will lead to more happiness anyway.
2. Focus your dissatisfaction toward self-improvement
Okay, so you’ve accepted the fact that your brain is going to talk you into always wanting more. Great. Channel that energy into your more challenging goals, like the amount of weight you’re currently lifting, your savings rate, or the number of books you’ve read. It’s usually worthwhile to be a little discontent with your accomplishments and strive to reach the next level. (Within reason, that is. If you’re a person who can’t stop beating themselves up for never being “good enough,” this tip might not be for you.)
Not only can this motivate you to keep working toward your goals; it can also distract your brain from becoming discontent with your car, your wardrobe, or any other aspects of your life where upgrades will be more expensive than productive.
3. Schedule a hedonic reset
First, check out this super interesting article on the hedonic reset, which means choosing to go without some of the convenience you’ve grown used to. Then, schedule time to take a break from one (or more) of the luxuries you take for granted. It could be as simple as skipping the nightly glass of wine for a week or as intense as leaving your comfortable home to go backpacking for months in a foreign country.
Is your life truly worse without that comfort? Likely not, but either way, when you add it back in again, you’ll get the same spike in happiness as if you were upgrading for the first time. As an added bonus, you’ll be less reliant on it, which means you’ll be stronger than you were before.
4. Use hedonic adaptation to help you practice moderation
The first bite of chocolate floods your brain with dopamine and you feel a rush as your body rewards you for giving it the fats and sugars it will surely need to survive the coming winter. But each bite is slightly less satisfying. You’ve already adapted to the new normal of the feeling of eating chocolate, and yet you can’t stop eating it until it’s all gone, long after the pleasure fades.
Knowing that a larger serving will provide diminishing returns, you can intentionally choose a small serving of a treat and still feel satisfied.
5. Seek variety instead of constant upgrades
We’ve already learned that the big things in life actually aren’t that impactful on your happiness. We can simulate the thrill of upgrades by experiencing them temporarily, and frequently, instead of constantly striving for the next big thing.
If you spend a magical weekend vacationing by the lake, you might start to get the itch to buy a lake cabin so you can experience that feeling whenever you want it. But, knowing that hedonic adaptation means that the joy of the vacation is in its novelty, and the rush won’t last forever, you can choose to spend your weekend getaways in Airbnbs in a variety of new and exciting places, rather than taking out a 30-year mortgage on a vacation home.
(Important note: the same thing isn’t necessarily true for romantic partners, for a variety of neurological reasons that you can read about here!)
6. Remember that upgrades make everything else seem worse by comparison
I saw an extremely expensive luxury car in the grocery store parking lot the other day, and my first thought was how sad it must be for the person whose brain considers that car normal. Are they incredibly disappointed every time they catch a ride to the airport with a friend? Is their day ruined when their Lyft driver pulls up in a lowly Honda Civic? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to have a lower neutral state so that you actually feel excited by a rare ride in a luxury vehicle?
Acknowledging that hedonic adaptation can make you weak and spoiled can help you avoid wasting money. For way more thoughts on this topic, check out Mr. Money Mustache’s awesome post on hacking hedonic adaptation to save money.
7. Make the positive feelings of life upgrades last longer by practicing gratitude
It may sound trite, but you can actually prolong the excitement of improvements by remembering to reflect on them and express gratitude for them. (This obviously happens automatically if you do the hedonic reset mentioned above!) I believe this is especially important for athletes. Even though we should never be totally satisfied with a personal record, we can be happier in our training by zooming out on our timeline, looking at our progress, and being thankful to our bodies for how far they’ve come.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to be thankful for the absence of shitty things. The terrible boss, the noisy upstairs neighbor, the manipulative ex, anything that made you genuinely unhappy in the past—remember to appreciate how great life is now that they’re gone.