Posted On 04 Jun 2010
Understanding the abstract notion of the general adaptation syndrome stages can prove surprisingly helpful when making concrete decisions in daily life.
Suppose, for example, that you unexpectedly inherit $1000 and that, since you have started and stuck to a new exercise program for 90 days, you want to reward yourself by spending the money on something that will make you feel happier. How should you spend it?
Since you’ve never had one and have heard good reports about them, you’ve been toying with the idea of buying a new flat-screen television. On the other hand, you have not been out of town for six months and are tempted by a real change of pace like a hiking and camping vacation in the mountains. Which alternative would best increase how happy you feel?
What is your answer? What’s the chief argument in favor of your answer? Please answer these two questions for yourself before reading the rest of this post.
[Did you actually do it? No cheating!]
Permit me to answer another question first and then to use its answer to give you my answer. What are the general adaptation syndrome stages?
There are five general adaptation syndrome stages. I’ll chose an actual example from my own life — my time as a cigarette smoker.
The first of the general adaptation syndrome stages is the initial response. I remember my first cigarette: it tasted terrible, made me cough, and gave me a headache!
The second of the general adaptation syndrome stages is adaptation. For psychological reasons, I persisted smoking cigarettes and my body quickly adapted to protect itself from the chemicals contained in the noxious smoke.
The third of the general adaptation syndrome stages is exhaustion. After a few years, I decided that I didn’t like the effects of being a smoker. It undermined my stamina and diminished my ability to smell and to taste. It made my breath and clothes stink. It was expensive. Worst of all, I had lost my freedom not to smoke.
The fourth of the general adaptation syndrome stages is recovery. I quit smoking. Fortunately, I wasn’t as addicted as some of my buddies. It was difficult to quit, but it wasn’t that difficult for me. The advantages of being a nonsmoker quickly outweighed the advantages of continuing to smoke.
The fifth of the general adaptation syndrome stages is hypersensitivity, which is really a return to the first stage. For me, it was a learning experience that taught me to trust my bodily responses more. Today, I cannot imagine becoming addicted to something that initially tastes terrible, makes me cough, and gives me a headache!
The television or the vacation?
Well, use the notion of those general adaptation syndrome stages to imagine beyond your initial experiences with either the television or the vacation. What will happen afterwards?
Nobody today has any knowledge of future consequences. All we can do is to imagine that future connections will sufficiently resemble past connections.
Let’s assume that your initial experiences with both the television and the vacation will be quite enjoyable. What will happen next?
After, say, a hundred days of watching it, will your enjoyment of watching your new television be as intense as it was the first day or two you had it? Of course not. You’ll have adapted to it. It’ll just be your television. (This phenomenon is sometimes called “the hedonic treadmill.”)
As for the vacation, even if your enjoyment of it never stimulates you to again hike and camp in the mountains, you’ll continue to remember it as having been a unique, enjoyable experience for as long as your memory lasts. In a sense, it will become part of yourself; you’ll identify yourself, in part, as one who successfully spent time in the mountains.
In this way it’s useful idea to keep the general adaptation syndrome stages in mind as you make daily decisions. Let’s consider two more examples.
Should you eat strawberry shortcake for dessert?
Think about how quickly you adapt: isn’t the first bite of an apple always the best bite? Instead of having, say, a huge strawberry shortcake, why not have just one or two strawberries? After all, the fifth strawberry won’t taste as good as the first, right?
Should you keep using the same strength training protocol for years on end?
Though a surprising number of trainees do, of course not! Change it every couple of months. Why? Since your body will adapt to any new one in a few weeks, keep challenging it by deliberately changing what you are doing every two or three months. Use different exercises or a different sequence of exercises or a different set & rep scheme.
So that’s how understanding this abstract notion can enable us to make better decisions every day.
[Incidentally, the idea of happiness is one of the five big ideas I discuss in 5 Ways to Diminish Failure Almost Instantly.]