Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repition.
-Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness
Enjoying holiday candies and cookies can be wonderful. When I am at home and I bite into that first fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie, my taste buds ascend into heaven. A sip of milk makes for a creamy and refreshing treat.
“Wow,” I think. “That was delicious. I think I will have another one.”
So I eat another one. And another one. And another one. And soon my stomach hurts. The cookies don’t taste so sweet. Or perhaps they taste too sweet – sickly sweet. The taste no longer brings pleasure. Ten cookies later, the taste conjures feelings of pain.
This economic concept (marginal utility) mirrors the concept of hedonic adaptation in many ways. Marginal utility explains why a thirsty person will experience great pleasure and relief when consuming the first class of water, but not when offered the 4th glass of water. As we begin to sate ourselves, the value of a particular good (like food or water) declines with each unit consumed. On the other hand, hedonic adaptation suggests that changes in our circumstances produce short term spikes or dips in well-being, but that well-being will regress to a stable baseline over time.
Hedonic adaptation suggests that humans often overestimate the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction we will experience during changing life circumstances (e.g. earning a raise, buying a new car, losing a job, losing a limb). Similarly, many people also struggle to predict how many cookies or slices of pizza will satisfy them (a misestimation of marginal return).
In addition to intensity, hedonic adaptation also predicts that we will overestimate the duration of satisfaction or dissatisfaction caused by life changes. Studies on both lottery winners and physically-disabled accident survivors suggested that these life events produce temporary changes in subjective well-being (self-reported life satisfaction), the significance of that change all but disappear after one year.
This is why the term “hedonic treadmill” has gained popularity. A treadmill stays in one place while the user runs. The speed gradually ramps up over time, but the runner remains in the same location. We believe that earning more money, buying a new house, a new car, or a new anything will move the needle toward “the good life.” But we are often disappointed to find out that that meter only moves several kilometers for a few moments before the odometer resets to zero. Unless we take time to savor what we have, everything in our life simply recedes as background noise once the new car smell wears off.
Simple actions like savoring (allowing one to sit in sensations with mindfulness) and gratitude (reflecting on positive aspects of one’s circumstances) can slow down this treadmill.
But ultimately, hedonic adaptation is one primary reason that Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that only 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances. We are simply too good at adjusting to “new normals” to warrant a greater percentage. Instead, Lyubomirsky says that 50% of our happiness stems from genetic factors and 40% derives from intentional thoughts and actions. This is why most books on happiness address this 40% – it is the portion that lends itself to more conscious effort and action.
What can we do with this knowledge? Who cares if we realize that our state of well-being tends to ebb and flow around a baseline of life satisfaction? For one, we can catch ourselves whenever we make false promises of future happiness based on our current circumstances.
“Once I get this new job, then I will be happy.”
“Once I get more money, then I will be happy.”
Maybe. Or maybe “leveling up” your income is simply not enough to level up your happiness.
The thrill of accomplishment can dissipate just as soon as it envelops us in a cloud bliss. We just cannot count on accomplishments and goal achievement as a sustainable source of well-being.
Those who say joy is not found in the destination, but the journey make a strong point. Rather than fantasizing about the destination (and consequently inflate our predicted happiness payoff), we can do better to make the most of our day-to-day experiences and interactions. Take a walk on a sunny day. Reach out to an old friend. Volunteer. Smile just a little bit more than you normally would.
While circumstantial changes (above abject poverty) yield rapidly diminishing returns, slowly increasing our day-to-day micro-habits of happiness can produce compound gains in resilience, positive emotions, and overall well-being. You want to be happier? Start small. Start today.