Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Hedonic adaption, or the hedonic treadmill, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
The reason why this idea is so important to understand in practice is because our brains are wired to constantly want more but even when we get more it doesn’t perpetually satisfy us. The dopamine rush that we experience begins to fade until we revert back to our regular state of mind.
If we aren’t aware of this then this will create a negative feedback loop of unsatisfied thoughts running through our minds. We may end up making mistakes due to unsatisfaction or worst of all, we may increase the probability of making the same mistakes more than once and not learning.
Once we accomplish a goal of ours, or buy a luxurious item that we have been wanting for so long, we think it’s going to make us happy and that will be the end result but it doesn’t end up having that effect. That moment of happiness or satisfaction we get isn’t everlasting.
What we end up doing is wanting an even better luxury item than the one we just bought, like an outfit that is more in style than the one we bought last month, or a bigger mansion, or a nicer car. Our minds have evolved to never settle. Our minds have evolved to always want more and to always move the goal post farther away once we hit a goal of ours.
What we need to do is understand the psychology of what’s going on inside our minds so we can understand how not to make life more difficult for us.
But first let me give you an example from my college days of hedonic adaption.
One sunny afternoon when I was interning in college, I was going to lunch with some of my colleagues for a birthday. I got in the car of one of my colleagues’ BMW.
I remember him telling me about a big problem he had owning a really nice car (in addition to the expensive car parts when they break). The problem is that you never want to go back to a cheaper priced car like a Toyota, Mazda, Honda, or Chevy.
So you essentially fall into this trap of paying higher prices to buy the luxury car in general, then higher prices to maintain the car as you put more and more miles on it, and then never wanting to buy a more modest car that is cheaper to fix. And your happiness level will revert back to where it originally was whether you owned a fancy or a basic car even though you now own a fancy one. That is how our minds are wired.
In a book I read a couple of years ago titled A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine the author gives three great examples of hedonic adaption that I want to mention.
The first is about winning the lottery:
“Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, the way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted.”
The second is about consumer purchases:
“Initially, we delight in the wide-screen television or fine leather handbag we bought. After a time, though, we come to despise them and find ourselves longing for an even wider-screen television or an even more extravagant handbag.”
And lastly, an example of hedonic adaption in our career:
“We experience hedonic adaption in our career. We might once have dreamed of getting a certain job. We might consequently have worked hard in college and maybe graduate school as well to get on the proper career path, and on that path, we might have spent years making slow but steady progress toward our career goal. On finally landing the job of our dreams, we will be delighted, but before long we are likely to grow dissatisfied. We will grumble about our pay, our coworkers, and the failure of our boss to recognize our talents.”
Understanding hedonic adaption is an important thing to be aware of because if we aren’t aware of it, we are more likely to fall into this trap of never being satisfied and then continuing to do the same thing over and over again which can lead to unhappiness.
Now the next question is, how do we overcome hedonic adaption?
The answer lies in first understanding the idea of hedonic adaption and then in being able to use negative visualization. Negative visualization is simply just picturing, or visualizing, our lives empty of the things we already have and already value. Picture what your life would be like if something or someone much more important in your life was gone like someone you love passing away, your wife leaving you, or your brokerage account being wiped out by a similar crisis to the Great Depression.
If you can value what you already have and understand that your mind will eventually revert back to its initial state after a certain period of time then you will be less likely to fall for the negative feedback loop of unsatisfied thoughts that hedonic adaption plagues on us.
So what we need to do is we need to learn how to want the things that we already have as opposed to the things we don’t.