Hedonic Adaptation – and Why It Matters

What is hedonic adaptation?

Hedonic adaptation is the experience of returning to a base level of happiness when something has become normal. When someone is used to something, their expectations increase, and they are no longer satisfied, and do not feel the same level of happiness.

This phenomenon explains why happiness is short lived, and why you don’t appreciate your new phone six months later, or that sense of dissatisfaction eating the same meal a second time. The initial happiness you feel fades away, reducing to your base level of happiness.

An example is a 2008 study where people rated their satisfaction with life in the years before and after marriage. The satisfaction reported increases leading up to the marriage, and then returns to the base level afterwards. How is it that people who are with someone they love are not as happy as before? They have become accustomed to this new level of happiness. Around the time of the marriage, they actively think about the improvement in their life, but over time they forget, and no longer appreciate it.

Why does it matter?

Knowing about hedonic adaptation, and taking advantage of this phenomenon, can increase your quality of life, and help you save money.

Happiness comes from contrast. That boost of excitement you get from a purchase is more about the change it brings than the object itself. The same excitement can be felt buying a cheaper alternative, if you’re used to less. Experience the exact same feeling, without the guilt about the cost or debt.

Once you realise buying expensive stuff has no lasting effect on your happiness, you can make the decision to eliminate some frivolous expenses. It’s a good habit to have if you want to achieve FIRE (Financial Independence – Retire Early), or just save money in general.

It’s not just about spending, it’s also about reducing consumption. The constant purchasing (and consuming) of goods leads to vast amounts of waste, which is environmentally irresponsible. More and more resources are used up, not all of which are renewable, for the sake of short lived happiness.

How to use hedonic adaptation to your advantage

To start with, you have to work out the things in your life that are consistent, but you don’t actively enjoy. Replace these with cheaper alternatives, and you’ll soon find you’re just as happy. With me, for example, I drink coffee every morning. I do enjoy coffee, but I don’t savour every sip, I drink it without appreciating it. I am quite happy with a cheaper alternative, and have adapted to it. When I occasionally have a more expensive option (in this case anything other than instant coffee), I savour it even more.

The same goes for any service you use. I use my phone as a way of accessing other pleasurable activities. I get no pleasure from the phone itself, but what I access through it. As long as it works, there is no need for an upgrade. I might be excited at first, but I’ll soon forget about any difference it makes. The money I save can be put to better use elsewhere.

Anything that isn’t genuinely appreciated will not be missed once you change it. The money saved can be spent on occasional treats, or something you do appreciate, which will improve your overall level of happiness.

Take time to appreciate the good in your life, before it stops making you so happy.

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