hedonic adaptation

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

Hedonic adaptation. It explains a lot, both in my personal life, and why I do what I do in my art practice.

I first encountered the concept in The Cure for Loneliness by Dr. Bill Howatt (2021), but really only absorbed the meaning of it while reading The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want by Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007). Lyubormirsky does a good job in this book in relaying empirical data on the study of happiness. This is accessible and relatable research.

The term hedonic adaptation 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 2 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. Other experiences will have a shorter happiness benefit, for example, shopping will only offer a small boost to your happiness level because 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. In myself, I have noticed how I return to certain experiences and find value in revisiting them. Case in point, my 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.


trip to Oaxaca + a visual record in the form of a journal

a rewarding routine
I’m in a new studio and have a new routine: I go to the studio on set days. 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, and being able to create work in a studio setting. This last one is significant for me, as last fall I had a studio in which I could not create anything at all and which led me to question whether a studio space was necessary to my practice. Furthermore, my ability to create work in this new space provides me with a state of flow (something we enjoy returning to).


Reminiscing…I have always thought of reminiscing as a weakness. A wish for a different time. But, what is different here is how we engage with reflection, how we revisit happy memories…

…instead of wishing for a time in the past, we might savour an achievement: remembering how we made an experience happen (many people, women especially, would ask me “aren’t you afraid of going alone to Mexico?”—other people’s fears can get in your way if you’re not careful), or realizing your capacity at resourcefulness …

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).

And what is a “baseline” happiness level? Lyubomirsky explains that a good chunk of our happiness, about 50 percent, is genetically determined (p 20) and this effects the extent to “how happy we will be over the course of our lives” (p 21). So are some of us doomed?

What about the rest of the pie chart? 40 percent of our happiness is dependent on what we do and how we think about it—“intentional activity” (like my trip to Oaxaca and my studio routine), and only about 10 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 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 memories, from typing letters for passersby, to inviting collaboration in creating an installation, to (most recently) leading a group on a walk.