Hedonic adaptation is the theory that people always return to their baseline level of happiness.

Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Discourse on Inequality.

What Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes applies to everything: marriage, getting a good job, having kids, buying a new phone, etc. In the time since he wrote about this, all of those cases (and more) have been proven in study after study. This begs the question then, especially in a time where our lives are objectively better than at any point in history, can we do anything to break the chain of hedonic adaptation? Technology offers a near infinite amount of conveniences. As a species, we should be the happiest we have ever been. But alas, we take for granted most of these conveniences because they have been ingrained into our subconscious as a baseline for how we live life.

Our satisfaction is determined by reference points

Morewedge et. al (2010) found we tend to predict how happy something will make us in relation to a reference. For example, person A is given potato chips to eat while person B is given a chocolate cake. They found that the person A was unhappy since they preferred the cake. They repeated this scenario, but instead person B received sardines. Person A was now happy because he now preferred the potato chips.

This sort of scenario crops up more often than you would think everyday. For example, if you are eating lunch outside but see that others have gotten something a lot more appetising. Perhaps you are on the bus, you just miss out on getting the last seat and are the only one standing. A popular, memed, example are the Airpods. They have become such a status symbol that feelings of FOMO and dissatisfaction are common if you see them in public and don’t have a pair. These may be trivial examples, but they have an unmistakable influence on your mood in the moment, which can compound.

Reset your reference points

Hedonic adaptation plays on our a feature of our minds; we tend to make judgements and internalise reference points. Our happiness or satisfaction returns to the baseline because of these reference points. In order to take back control, we need ways to reset our reference points.

Interrupting an experience

Nelson & Meyvis (2008) made an interesting finding: we intuitively prefer to have breaks for bad experiences and have no breaks for good experiences. The intended effect is in opposition to the actual effect. Breaks worsen negative experiences while they improve positive experiences. A break disrupts the process of hedonic adaptation and makes the subsequent experience more intense. In theory, we should avoid breaks for bad experiences and take breaks for good experiences.

Nelson et. al (2009) made a finding that goes against our deepest beliefs about TV: ad breaks are great. They acknowledged that all consumers universally despise ads, and if given the opportunity, will always opt for watching TV without them then with them. In this world of ad-free online streaming, ad breaks are a forgotten concept. They found that ads objectively made the viewing experience more positive for viewers because it reset their hedonic adaptation. This effect held when controlling for the presence of ads, the (production) quality of the advertisements, and the nature of the advertisements (what they were promoting).

Do yourself a favour and try to avoid breaks for negative experiences and take breaks for positive experiences. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the science is convincing.


Related Posts