hedonic adaptation

hedonic = (adj.) relating to or considered in terms of pleasant (or unpleasant) sensations.–Oxford dictionary online.

InThe How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want (2007), Sonja Lyubomirsky relays strategies for improving happiness backed by scientific research, some of which is her own. Lyubomirsky’s area of research is in fact happiness and her current research addresses these questions: “1) What makes people happy?; 2) Is happiness a good thing?; and 3) How and why can people learn to lead happier and more flourishing lives?”

In this Research Note, I want to reflect on a new term I encountered while reading Lyubomirsky’s book: hedonic adaptation. The term is called into service to describe how we adapt to pleasurable experiences, from shopping, to travelling, to moving to a new city. Lyubomirsky reports that a new experience, like getting married, makes you happy for about two years. As you get used to the new situation, the newness and its potential to make you happy wears off and you return to your “baseline happiness level” (more on that below). Other experiences will have a shorter happiness benefit, for example, shopping will only offer a small boost to your happiness level as it is a very short lived experience and you quickly adapt to the newly acquired object. It’s also an experience that doesn’t feed into a sense of personal achievement.

What boosts our happiness over and over, is the depth of an experience. Personally, I have noticed how I return to certain experiences and find value in revisiting them. Case in point, my solo trip to Oaxaca in 2017, which I’ve already written about twice in my Research Notes. Also important to note, is that during the trip I created a visual and written journal that allows me to revisit the experience long after the trip is over…essentially reminiscing. Below are two personal examples of experiences that prevent hedonic adaptation from settling in.

Experiences with positive feedback loops

Example 1. My trip to Oaxaca plus the creation of a visual record, in the form of an art journal, aids in reminiscing.

Example 2. A rewarding routine:
I’m renting a new studio and have a new routine. While this activity could be at risk of hedonic adaptation, I derive a sense of achievement on several levels, from having found an affordable studio, keeping to my schedule, expanding my network of artists friends, and being able to create work in a studio setting. I also attempt to bring variety to my routine by changing my route to the studio which brought the discovery of an Italian deli/café where both the staff and the clientele is very friendly. Working in the studio also provides me with opportunities for a state of flow (something we enjoy returning to).

A note on reminiscing. I have always thought of reminiscing as a weakness–a wish for a different time. But reminiscing can have a different effect and purpose when approached from a different mindset. Instead of wishing for a time in the past, we might savour an achievement, realizing our capacity at resourcefulness and remembering how we made an experience happen. Many people, women especially, would ask me “aren’t you afraid of going alone to Mexico?” If you’re not careful, other people’s fears can get in the way of realizing your full potential. The trick in reminiscing, as Lyubomirsky points out, is to not “compare these feelings with the present; focus only on the positives and how they have enriched your life” (p 202).

Baseline happiness level. Lyubomirsky explains that a good chunk of our happiness, about fifty percent, is genetically determined and this affects the extent to “how happy we will be over the course of our lives” (p 20, 21). So are some of us doomed? And what about the rest of the pie chart?

Intentional activity. About forty percent of our happiness is dependent on what we do and how we think about it, referred to as intentional activity in happiness research (like my trip to Oaxaca and my studio routine). Only about ten percent of our happiness is effected by circumstances, e.g. being married/single/divorced, rich/poor, healthy/unhealthy, etc.

At the end of the day, we are better off focusing on intentional activity rather than commiserating on genetic disposition or personal circumstance. In reviewing my work, I can see how my projects have heavily leaned into creating an experience—for myself and participants, and have been devised with the intention of producing positive and perhaps lasting memories, from typing letters for passersby, to inviting collaboration in creating an installation, to leading a group on a walk. Furthermore, documenting these projects on my website helps me to easily revisit what I’ve achieved over the years reminding me of my purpose in my creative practice–a rewarding feedback loop.