Hedonic Adaptation

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

Beware hedonic adaptation!

Do you share my tendency to underestimate how adaptable we are?

Imagine initially visiting this planet and discovering that human beings live everywhere from the fringes of the Arctic Ocean to the steaming tropics of the equator. That’s astounding.

Think, too, of human beings living with grave physical or emotional disabilities. Have you ever learned about someone else’s life and thought, “I couldn’t live like that”? Well, perhaps you could live like that even if it now seems that it would be the greatest punishment. In other words, you may be more adaptable than you think.

The Greek word ‘hedone’ means ‘pleasure.’ Let’s here consider all kinds of pleasures, not just physical ones. Let’s think of whatever pleases you whether it be eating your favorite food when you are hungry, enjoying power, winning something you covet, relishing the benefits of being a celebrity, or whatever floats your boat.

Watch out for hedonic adaptation!

What pleases in the short term usually fails to please  in the long term.

What happens when you buy or build a wonderful new house in a beautiful location? What happens when you buy your first 65” flat screen television? What happens when you buy an expensive luxury automobile that you have craved for years?

You already understand what happens, don’t you? After the initial surge of pleasure, you quickly adapt to owning your new possession. You may continue to enjoy it, but the enjoyment you experience quickly diminishes; even after just a day or so it may have significantly decreased. That’s hedonic adaptation.

I’ve heard that scientific researchers worldwide are confirming this.

It’s normal to want more freedom. Don’t we all want greater freedom? Since money brings options, it’s normal want more money. The problem is that, when you attain more options, you have more decisions to make about the best ones to take. Since it’s always impossible to know in advance all the outcomes of taking any option, having more options increases stress.

This doesn’t mean that having lots of money is inherently bad. Money itself is neither inherently bad nor inherently good.

There seems to be general agreement that having sufficient money to support what we usually think of as a middle class lifestyle is preferable to being impoverished, to having little or no money. It does not follow, however, that having more money than that would be better.

Focusing life on gaining more money is a terrible way to live. Why? Focusing life on gaining more anything is a terrible way to live.

If you have already had lots of money for a while, you have experienced hedonic adaptation for yourself.

What should you do if you are already financially wealthy? I don’t know. Again, it’s impossible to know all the consequences of acting on any decision in advance.

If you are already financially wealthy, it doesn’t follow that you’d be happier if you gave all your money away. If I were in that position, though, I’d certainly consider giving a lot of it away. Spending it on helping others would likely be much more satisfying than spending it on myself.

If you are in the insidious habit of comparing your wealth to that of others and stop doing so, don’t be surprised if you begin to feel better.

What should you do if you are not already financially wealthy? If you are poor, you’d likely be happier (less dissatisfied, more satisfied, more content) if you attracted enough money into your life to enable you to attain a middle class lifestyle.

If you are middle class, be prudent with your money so that you maintain your lifestyle. For example, avoid paying for anything on credit. If you want a new car or a European vacation, pay for them in advance and you’ll enjoy them more. For example, instead of purchasing more physical stuff, focus on beneficial experiences such as learning how to do yoga, acquiring another language, or mastering an art form.

Whatever expectations you may have to the contrary, there seems to be no empirical evidence that being financially wealthy correlates with being happy (satisfied, content).

How could there be? Isn’t what you are infinitely more important than what you have? Doesn’t being always trump merely owning?

I happen to believe that you already are everything you need to be to live well.

If so, a life of incessant gaining is unwise. You are living foolishly if you are in the habit of giving in to the desire to acquire.

HEDONIC ADAPTATION CHALLENGE

Here’s a test: if you’d like to feel better, go through your possessions and deliberately give away at least a quarter of them (and one third of them would be better). Don’t you have a lot of infrequently used stuff that others might enjoy? If so, you have been blessed. Pause to feel grateful — then roll up your sleeves and start giving some stuff away. Find out for yourself whether or not you’ll feel more gratitude and less stress.

 

References:  Any serious work on spiritual well-being at least indirectly relates to hedonic adaptation.  For example, Eckhart Tolle’s books and talks are helpful and so is, especially if your background is Christian, A Course in Miracles.  You might also enjoy my It’s Not Just About the Money.

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