Hedonic adaptation, the pursuit of happiness

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It’s interesting to learn about this concept in psychology that each one of us has a baseline level of happiness that remains more or less constant throughout our existence, named as a hedonic set point. What is fascinating is that we generally return to our baseline point of happiness irrespective of whatever happens in our lives, either good or bad.

A psychological concept 

During 1971, researchers Brickman and Campbell outlined this peculiar human nature, which was first known as hedonic treadmill, later as hedonic adaptation.

The study group

The textbook case study, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: is happiness Relative“, illustrates the hedonic set-point based on the survey conducted by Brickman Janoff. His study subjects were accident victims who were paralysed after the accident and lottery winners: two entirely different groups, one with enormously beneficial experience and the other, with a life-altering experience.

Revert to the default state 

After a few months into the incidents mentioned above, subjects belonging to each group got back to their unique baseline happiness, it’s a bit counterintuitive. When favourable things happen, happiness spikes up, while encountering terrible things, the level of happiness goes down. It works both ways. Good or bad, you eventually adapt and come back to your baseline level of happiness.

The neurobiology of adaptation

Not going into the technical details, but a few essential information, about the process. Hedonic adaptation happens in multiple ways. By shifting cognitive adaptation levels through reasoning and goal re-setting, by  desensitisation of the over-stimulated pathways which prevents persistently elevated positive or negative impact, as well as by sensitisation from continuous exposure.

Chasing stars

Hedonic treadmill points out that, as certain factors in your life change, so do your expectations. When you finally achieve what you’re seeking, you adapt to your success in a short period, and it’s not pleasurable anymore. You desire something more, the cycle repeats.

Step off from the treadmill?

The happiness you derive from achievements is subjective and fleeting. The pleasure you experienced on different occasions in your life has lost the sparkle after a while, and you get adapted to it.

This adaptation explains why people who achieve wealth,  and status continue to seek more. We are not satisfied with what we have, for long before you know, you fixate on something else to accomplish. 

Now you are caught in the cycle of a treadmill, getting off seems not the right choice.

Though the evidence suggests that most people are caught up on this frustrating treadmill of rising expectations, many individuals have found ways to escape it.

Can you escape the hedonic treadmill or you are perpetually bound to the setpoints?

The million-dollar question

The million-dollar question is about the millions that are going to make you content. No arbitrary value, I presume.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s observation on money’s positive correlation with happiness is up to a specific of annual income, covering the necessities and a few luxuries. Earning one million when you have nothing makes an enormous difference in your life, but obtaining the same amount when you have fifty million does not produce such a positive impact. You reach a point of diminishing returns.

Enjoy the process

After a point 

After a certain point, more than wealth, experiences in your life would yield a better return; in the long run, optimal experiences add up to a sense of accomplishment.

Doing the maths 

Is it possible to influence your hedonic point?

As per the scholars, the chart of happiness goes like,

  • 50% happiness is genetic, as explained by the studies done on identical twins.
  • 10% of happiness depends on the circumstances you are born in.
  • Rest  40% of your happiness is subject to your influence.

Up to a considerable extent, you can influence your happiness.

Positive psychological strategies

Hedonic adaptation is a process that reduces the affective impact of emotional occurrences. This concept has been utilised in the positive psychological fields as well as by the authors and speakers who write and talk about happiness and minimalism in life.

All the countless books, podcasts and youtube videos created based on the topic of long-lasting fulfillment and achievements talk about reducing the power of the hedonic treadmill on us and using diverse positive psychological strategies for attaining a gratifying life.

Few positive strategies

The aspects that influence you positively is long and diverse. Everyone has basic knowledge about the habits and the ways that would make them more constructive and happy.

Do the things you enjoy doing, learn gratitude, engage in goal-oriented activities, invest in relationships that keep you motivated, do something for yourself as well as others, are a few examples.

Enjoy the process 

In a nutshell, it is enjoying the process rather than focusing on the outcome that would bring long-lasting contentment. 

Resilience building 

Researcher  Sonja Lyubomirsky formulated happiness set points to be applied in clinical psychology to help the patients return to a previous level of happiness when faced with adverse circumstances. A kind of resilience and optimism building.

Critical views to dispute

Like any other scientific concept, Hedonic adaptation  has its share of followers and hard-nosed critics questioning its certainty.

Beyond the hedonic treadmill

Latest scientific review on the concept is that individuals may have more than one happiness point, such as life satisfaction set point and a subjective well-being set point.

Before they come up with more dichotomies and statements, let me conclude.

Use to your advantage 

Ability to adapt to a new situation to maintain emotional stability as well as being less sensitive to any emotional upheavals, particularly the unfavourable ones are advantageous to oneself. Learn to utilise the hedonic adaptation to your benefit.

Sayeeda Pearl

Doctor by profession, Trivandrum medical college alumni, a passionate reader first, writing tidbits here and there on this and that. Sharing bits of life’s fascinating teachings that everyone encounters.

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