Post No.: 0116
Even after the most incredible or terrible of events, we have an amazing tendency to regress, at least largely back, and often completely back, to the happiness levels we had prior to the event. We quickly become quite ignorant to the things that are fantastic (so we quickly take previously-desired things for granted once we obtain them) and we’re very good at reducing cognitive dissonance and explaining away things to make ourselves feel better whenever we receive less than what we originally desired (e.g. rationalising that a bad outcome was ‘actually a blessing in disguise’). So both our desires and worries tend to be overblown because inside of us is the capacity to nevertheless conjure up the very happiness and contentment we’re chasing when we seek things like wealth or fame. Yet we underestimate or are unaware of this very ability to adapt.
This ‘hedonic adaptation’ or ‘hedonic treadmill’ effect means that we think e.g. a new car will make us happier, and it will, but not for as long or as intensely as we had imagined because the novelty and joy wears off quickly as we get used to what we now have. This does mean that tragedies, such as losing a paw (as long as the actual physical pain has completely subsided), won’t make us feel sad for as long as we may imagine too (psychologically, a 3-limbed person missing an arm will eventually feel like a 4-limbed person missing a tail). We’ll actually find ways to like the things we have once we’re stuck with them – so if we can’t find ways of changing our circumstances, we’ll change the way we think about them. So if we have no choice and cannot do something about a situation then we’ll more readily accept what we’ve got/what’s happened, compared to if we could potentially do something about it. This all means that we all tend to have a ‘set point’ of happiness that we’ll return to no matter where our happiness levels temporarily go to; which is great for generally happy people but not so great for generally grumpy people!
Hedonic habituation can be rapid but will vary between individuals and situations. On average, married people are happier when they get married but then fall back to their pre-relationship level of happiness after about two years of marriage. Fortunate events don’t leave us experientially happier for as long as we may think, and unfortunate events don’t leave us experientially unhappier for as long as we may think. This is partly due to ‘stimuli homeostasis’ (e.g. how we can acclimatise to a new temperature or altitude) where relevant, and partly due to us having an amazing ability to rationalise just about anything. Therefore post-justifying and convincing ourselves of things we didn’t believe in before, because we’re now stuck with them, can sometimes be adaptive e.g. a person who has a very slobbery dog ends up not wanting to trade that dog for the world anymore because he/she is now his/her dog – woof! (This is also down to the ‘endowment effect’, where people usually demand much more to give up an object they possess than they’d be willing to pay to acquire the same object if they didn’t have it. This is itself related to loss aversion.) Although there is a difference between adaptive rationalisation (e.g. smoothing over small cracks) and maladaptive rationalisation (e.g. sunk cost fallacies or putting up with abuse in a relationship).
The problem with hedonic adaptation is that, because the feelings of hedonic elevation are only temporary, we can chase things we’ll never reach, such as feeling that we’ll ever have enough wealth – you can forever chase an infinite number but you’ll never seem to have enough because you’ll always eventually return to your set point of happiness. It is why cosmetic enhancement surgery (as opposed to correction from an injury or disease) will make a client very happy for a few weeks if successful, but they’ll soon return to their personal set point level of happiness/unhappiness as before their surgery (hence why such people tend to feel like they need more and more things done to themselves over time). Or it’s akin to opioid drugs being ineffective for solving chronic pain because our bodies adapt to the drug and so need ever-greater doses to feel the same effect as before – until the cons of the drug start to severely outweigh the pros. For addictive chemicals, usage can increase the amount we need to feel the same amount of pleasure from it as we did before.
Previous gains won’t feel like gains anymore but just the new norm. If you have one – the first time you got a 42” TV it felt amazing, but then it just became ‘whatever’, and indeed if you ever went back down to a 32” TV (all else being equal) it’d feel like a loss rather than the 42” TV felt like a temporary gain. And now you probably want a 50” screen! Note that people haven’t been getting exponentially happier despite the power in their mobile phones getting exponentially greater! People of today aren’t all happier than people of the past despite having more products today. It’s just ‘stuff’ at the end of the day/life. Things like our fluffy health, social relationships, not being in a state of uncertainty or war, are far more predictive of our happiness. Nostalgia is seldom really as good as you thought if you were to revisit the past – the things you have today are highly likely better than the things you had in the past, but because of hedonic adaptation, you don’t realise how good you have it today. (The urge for nostalgia tends to only happen though when one feels unhappy or uncertain about the present and near future.)
It’s therefore arguably not better to ‘have loved then lost than never to have loved at all’. Heartbreak and loss tends to be extremely painful but we don’t tend to mourn for or often even consider the loves/loved ones we never had – only those we specifically had but lost; although loneliness is bad too. Of course, the best situation is to have loved and still love and be loved, and to remember the good times of a loved one if/when they become lost and know you’ll eventually return to happiness again. Woof.
So lottery winners soon experience hedonic adaptation, and may even end up finding ‘ordinary’ pleasures no longer pleasurable or worthwhile anymore i.e. they’ve gotten used to receiving ‘big doses’ of things but now those sources no longer give them big hedonic hits anymore (just medium hits), and furthermore, sources of relatively ‘small doses’ of things may no longer do anything for them anymore (e.g. regular hotels when one has gotten too used to 5-star hotels). They might feel they need sources of big hits just to feel just as happy as non-lottery winners now. So after the initial euphoria, they don’t feel happier with more as much as feel less happy if they receive relatively less than what they’ve now gotten used to – hence how one can fall into the trap of requiring sources of ever-bigger hits just to feel the same elevated hedonic level of pleasure again (e.g. supercars, to yachts, to planes, to islands, to the world, or simply more and more money, endlessly and unsustainably on a hedonic treadmill. It’s akin to drug desensitisation or insensitivity – indeed, opioid drugs trigger much the same neural pathways as natural feelings of reward and pleasure) if one uses a materialistic or narcissistic strategy for obtaining happiness.
Paraplegics, rather than habituate, may feel a contrast effect if they idealise their past though (i.e. if they contrast their condition today to their condition before their paraplegia), which won’t help their present life satisfaction (this can be why top athletes, who didn’t plan their backup/next careers, can feel lost or depressed after they retire, or why relationships that burn unsustainably crazily at the start tend to fizzle out quickly soon after – it’s like their best days are behind them already). Maybe the best lives and marriages are those that gradually, in a slow and sustainable way, starting from a solid initial base, improve year-on-year, regardless of their absolute conditions or wealth i.e. we only need to improve relative to previously and only by the smallest noticeable margin, no matter where we are in absolute terms. (Indeed, many national central banks of ‘developed’ countries have a goal of trying to achieve a slow, gradual and small increment of inflation year-on-year because this is the most sustainable level of growth – massive booms then busts aren’t stable.)
So material purchases can make one feel happier temporarily, but due to hedonic adaptation, one soon gets used to them and falls back to one’s previous level of happiness, hence the ‘treadmill’ effect of feeling that one endlessly needs more and ever more just to feel the same effect in pleasure as before. Some consumers adapt as soon as they’ve brought an item home, where the item subsequently goes unused or used just once! It’s not a sustainable and lasting route to happiness. It still gives pleasure to many people though because of the temporary effect luxury purchases can give, so people continue to be conditioned to believe that it works – but we quickly desensitise to our gains and need more and more just to get the same hit as before. And this can lead some people into bad debt.
And due to the hedonic treadmill, once you get given something, it can be hard to give it back (e.g. like a Pandora’s Box, the US cannot easily reverse the Second Amendment regarding firearms because guns are too ingrained in the culture for the foreseeable future, even though the rational move would be to take heed in the death and injury statistics and wean from firearms; assuming people are in general rational enough. The regular citizens, on average, who are by far the most bothered about possessing firearms are those in countries that already have them, whilst regular citizens in countries that have never had them so freely aren’t that bothered to have them in the first place, never mind keep them. This all could be the case with recreational drug use laws too). It’s the same with discounted prices if a retailer has sales promotions too frequently (e.g. some furniture stores), where ‘sale prices’ are now considered the norm and the only direction they can go to attract increased custom is ‘double discount prices’(!) So give an inch and people will eventually get used to it, never want to relinquish it, and may even request a mile.
We quickly don’t see it as a bonus to have something special because we’ll soon take it for granted, yet we’ll see it as a loss if we ever lose it. So, psychologically, it’s unfortunately not about what people have in absolute terms but what they have relative to others and to their current or recent self. Hence in cases of unsustainable behaviours, it’s arguably better to not have ever had something in the first place (apart from as a genuinely infrequent or surprise treat, or as something that was always understood to be only temporary) because we’ll get used to it, and can only demand more and more of it, or at least the same and not less, to feel happy or happier.
Some people are more prone to adaptation than others though, and one’s set point doesn’t have to stay fixed in the long term (it’s like extreme weather constantly regresses back to the mean, but over a long time, this mean, or set point, can gradually drift to create an overall trend of global warming). With happiness – one’s set point can gradually shift upwards with the correct training and concerted effort in the right directions (e.g. gratitude training – see Post No.: 0042)!