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Hedonic adaptation: what it is and how to avoid it
Do you ever feel like you would be happier if you just had that amount of money/new job/relationship/new thing? But each time you indulge in whatever it is you want, you’re still pining after the next thing, the thing that surely must be better? This is what we refer to as hedonic adaptation, sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill.
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It’s when we adapt to the things that give us pleasure; it’s our tendency to return to a set level of happiness no matter the ups and downs we experience. It explains why we feel disappointed with our choices in the long run, even if those choices were fundamentally good.
The psychologists Brickman and Campbell first noted this concept back in 1971 in their essay titled Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. The term ‘hedonic treadmill’ came about in the 1990s as a metaphor to describe how people are constantly trying to raise their happiness levels, yet never really achieving the level they expect to.
It makes us focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we have.
The phases of the hedonic treadmill
- You feel bored so you crave stimulation.
- You get excited at the idea/opportunity of something e.g. a new job, a new item, a relationship.
- You believe you need that thing to be happier.
- You finally get the thing and you feel happy.
- But over time, you fall back into boredom and arrive at step one again.
How to avoid hedonic adaptation
Don’t worry if the above has made you think “oh dear, I’m experiencing severe hedonic adaptation.” Almost all of us experience it at some point, if not regularly throughout our lives. You’re not alone! Some people can learn to live with the ride of the hedonic treadmill and recognise that not everything new can make them happy. Others try to outrun it, always chasing the next new thing and big experience of pleasure.
The outrun approach isn’t sustainable, as it actually makes the hedonic treadmill harder to jump off! It’s not sustainable for the planet (we all know the effects of overconsumption) or for yourself.
There are, luckily, plenty of ways you can easily work to break the cycle of hedonic adaptation. Try out a few of the suggestions below, and let us know how you get on.
Focus on the process instead of the end goal.
Ever heard the phrase ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination?’ Take this attitude next time you’re waiting to achieve that thing that’ll surely make you happy, and instead focus on the present moment and enjoy the process. When you stop focusing on the end goal, it’ll become easier to break the cycle of hedonic adaptation. After all, hedonic adaptation relies on you putting all your focus on the next goal.
Avoid hedonic adaptation by breaking your routine
Stop hedonic adaptation in its tracks by mixing up your routine and injecting some variety into your life to prevent you from negatively adapting to the things that make you happy. Although routines are easy, breaking them now and then will only help you jump off the hedonic treadmill – no matter how hard it is to break out of it.
Practice gratitude and mindfulness
We’re more susceptible to hedonic adaptation if we’re unhappy with where we’re at in life, not content with what we currently have. Regularly practising gratitude for what we do have is important, not just for hedonic adaptation, but for our everyday moods too. Practising gratitude doesn’t have to be ‘woo woo,’ (trust us!) it can be as simple as thinking of three things you were grateful for whilst you brush your teeth at the end of the day.
You could even go further and use ‘negative visualisation’ where you imagine what life would be like without the things you currently have. For instance, you might be desperate to buy another jacket, but before you make the purchase, stop to think about where you’d be without your current jackets. You’d be cold, that’s for sure!
This technique helps you to feel grateful for all the things you do have.
Do charitable work or altruistic deeds
Researcher Martin Seligman found that, although altruistic work such as volunteering or helping a friend can take a significant amount of energy and might not always be instantly enjoyable at first (the work can be tough), these sorts of activities bring lasting positive overall happiness. The happiness achieved as a result of meaningful activities is far more beneficial to the giver than the standard activities of the hedonic treadmill.
This is without even mentioning the benefits to whoever or whatever cause you’re so kindly helping. Helping others does make you genuinely happy, after all.
Work to let go of the idea that something outside of yourself will bring you happiness
This isn’t a quick fix, it’ll take consistent time and dedication – but it’s something that will affect your long-term happiness much more than the next desirable thing you’ve got your heart set on.
Hedonic adaptation is rooted in the belief that happiness lies outside of the self and that it’s entirely dependant on external factors. Do regular mindset work to break down these limiting beliefs so that you can begin to realise that happiness comes from within; everything external is a bonus.
We’d love to hear about your experience with hedonic adaptation and whether you’ve tried any of the suggestions in this blog. Join our free Ailuna Community Facebook group or tag us on Instagram @ailunacommunity and let us know your thoughts!
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