You will become used to all of the positive things in your life. You will take for granted your job, bigger house, new car and even your family. Some call this human nature while others use more scientific terms like hedonic adaptation (HA). Simply stated, hedonic adaptation states that we will adapt to positive and negative stimuli that are constant. I first heard about hedonic adaptation while studying Stoic philosophy. The Stoics believed that it was precisely because of this adaptation process that we should be indifferent to external conditions and events as they relate to our happiness. The new house, bigger salary or fancy sports car all produce temporary spikes in happiness (pleasure) but we quickly become used to these things and return to our baseline level of happiness. This is an amazing and critical principle to understand and more importantly to teach our kids. This should be taught in our schools. Everyone should be able to recognize the adaptation process at work. When I ask my son whether the PlayStation game MLB 2014 is worth the price given that he has MLB 2013 at home, he replies with an emphatic “yes!” After a month, I repeated the same question and his reply was a more tepid “maybe”. He has adapted. What is crucial in this situation is to have him understand his adaptation and remember it prior to future “must have” purchases. Unfortunately, our consumer-driven society is based upon promoting the myth that accumulating bigger and better stuff is the path to happiness. It is our jobs as parents to dispel this myth and provide strategies and alternative paths for our children to become happier. It is our jobs as adults to discuss this principle with others and understand the futility in material accumulation as a means toward the good life.
The science behind hedonic adaptation is robust and modern positive psychology continues to confirm what the Stoics believed 2000 years ago. From an evolutionary perspective, hedonic adaptation provides an advantage. If our emotional reactions did not decrease over time, we would not be able to differentiate more significant stimuli (new and important events) from less significant stimuli (old events that should fade into the background). Without being able to become used to new stimuli, we would become overwhelmed with emotion and unable to change or survive. The extent to which we adapt to negative versus positive events in our lives, however, does not appear to be equal. The research on HA to negative events is best described in a 19 year longitudinal prospective study by Lucas et al (2007) of German residents who experienced a government –certified disability during the course of the study. This cohort of disabled residents experienced a significant and sustained drop in well-being after the onset of the disability compared with their pre-disability levels even after income and employment status were controlled. Other studies evaluating HA to negative events supports the findings from Lucas’s investigation: The well-being levels of people who experienced significant negative life events (disability, unemployment, widowhood or divorce) did show improvement over time but never fully recovered. In other words, they were not able to completely adapt to the event. This has serious implications in our happiness as we all need to be able to effectively cope with the inevitable struggles in life.
Unlike negative stimuli, we adapt quickly and rapidly to positive events in our lives. In a study of lottery winners by Brickman et al 1978, Brickman showed that the winners were back to their baseline level of happiness 1-18 months after their big win. In a study by Lane (2000), there was no change in well-being over a fifty year period when income tripled from 1940-1990. In a prospective study by Lucas (Lucas and Clark 2006), German residents who married over the 15 year period of the study showed a significant boost in their happiness levels initially after the wedding but returned to their baseline levels after an average of 2 years. Finally, a second longitudinal study (Boswell et al 2005) found that high-level managers who changed jobs over the course of the study also demonstrated boosts in their satisfaction after the move (honeymoon effect similar to the marriage study) but their satisfaction plummeted within a year (hangover effect). This “hangover” effect is actually evidence of adaptation. This rapid adaptation to positive life events is a problem if our ultimate goal is to be happier. Sonia Lyubomirsky states in her terrific book The How of Happiness that “the quick and complete hedonic adaptation to positive events and to improvements in life circumstances is one of the greatest obstacles in raising and sustaining happiness.”
So if we adapt slowly and incompletely to negative often traumatic events and very quickly and completely become used to the positive aspects that make us feel good (at least initially), how can we possibly sustain and improve our well-being? The answer lies in the formula for happiness outlined by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004):
H (happiness) = S (set point) 50% + C (external condition) 10% + V (volition or voluntary activities) 40%
Several behavioral genetic studies have shown that approximately 50% of the variability between people’s happiness levels can be accounted for by genes. This genetic set point for most of us is a major impediment to raising levels of well-being and has led many researchers to conclude that happiness cannot be significantly changed. This formula also suggests that external conditions, for most people not afflicted by extreme poverty or trauma, play a relatively minor role in our happiness levels. The Stoics would agree. In fact, Epictetus would change this formula to read H= S + V as he along with other Stoic philosophers did not believe any external condition or event should impact one’s tranquility. This is an important conclusion that is supported by the research on HA to positive life events. We adapt to every good thing in our lives. Therefore, if we want to sustain and increase our well-being, we must forget about our genes, status or wealth and focus on the voluntary activities, thoughts and behaviors that provide up to 40% of our happiness levels. It is not where we live or what we accumulate that matters; it is what we do that makes all the difference.
If our intentional activities provide positive emotions and play a significant role in our well-being, won’t we simply adapt to them as we would to a new car or bigger house? The answer is yes. We have all taken for granted our health as we wake up each day and are able to easily get out of bed. We have adapted to the presence of our spouse and family in our daily lives. We complain about our jobs and rarely consider the thrill of initially landing the position. As Brickman states “if an individual adapts to all things, positive, then no matter what thrilling, meaningful, and wonderful experiences await her, these experiences will not make her any happier but instead may drive her to acquire even more new and thrilling things and risk placing herself squarely on a futile and desperate hedonic treadmill” (Brickman &Campbell 1971). Does this sound familiar? I know many people (including myself a few years ago) who fit this description. The good news for all of us is that people appear to vary in their rates of hedonic adaptation to both positive and negative events and more importantly that a significant number of individuals actually become happier over time. A 22-year study of 2,000 healthy veterans found that life satisfaction increased over these men’s lives, peaked around age 65 and did not start declining significantly until age 75 (Mroczek & Spiro, 2005). In the 15-year longitudinal study by Lucas (2007a) of marital transitions, although most returned to their baseline levels of happiness, some individuals got happier and stayed happier after marriage. Additionally, while some widows’ happiness plummeted and never fully recovered after their spouse’s death, others actually became happier after the initial grieving period. Given everyone’s unique life circumstance, there are likely several reasons why some people appear to be more resilient to the adaptation process. According to Lyubomirsky, “the chief reason (for this resilience) is that people have the capacity to control the speed and extent of adaptation via intentional, effortful activities.”
The goal based on Lyubomirsky’s research would be for us to engage in activities and behaviors that will accelerate the adaptation process to negative events and slow down the process to positive events. This is not a trivial goal given that over half of US adults will experience one severe traumatic event during their lives (Ozer & Weiss, 2004) and practically everyone, at some point, will experience moderate daily stress. Without the ability to cope (accelerate HA process), many people will stay anxious, depressed and frustrated as they struggle to move beyond the negative event. Figuring out which behaviors and activities will accelerate adaptation to negative stimuli depends upon our understanding of which intentional efforts are effective in slowing down the HA process to positive events.
“My Experience is what I agree to attend to” – William James
One of the most useful ways that we can slow down or stop becoming used to all of the good things in our lives is to simply pay attention to them. What most people choose to focus on determines their experience and in fact, becomes their life. As we think about our own lives, once a person, material possession or an activity/job no longer grabs our attention, we have adapted to it. Conversely anything or anyone that we are continually aware of or that keeps popping into our minds will be less prone to HA. A study of owners of luxury cars showed that these drivers were no happier driving their expensive luxury automobiles during car trips than owners of small two-door coupes unless they were thinking of their car’s attributes while driving (Schwarts, Kahneman & Xu). If they were noticing the comfortable seats, terrific handling or nice stereo system while driving, they reported higher levels of happiness compared with owners of non-luxury cars. This makes sense. Just as they were appreciating the good aspects of their cars, we can appreciate the good things in our lives. Tal Ben-Shahar states that “when we appreciate the good, the good appreciates.” People who continue to be aware of a positive activity change in their lives are less likely to adapt to it (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2011). The act of appreciation or paying attention to the “good” in our lives is one that can be intentionally chosen and habituated. So if maintaining the correct level of attention is the antidote for HA, then what is the best way to inoculate ourselves and more importantly how do we make this into a habit? The answer lies in what I feel are two key happiness interventions: gratitude and optimal frequency of activities.
Gratitude: the quickest path to happiness
Gratitude is regarded as one of the greatest virtues by ancient religious and philosophical texts. Like any virtue, it must be deliberately practiced. We have all been told at some point in our lives to count our blessings, give thanks for what we have, and try to help others. This common wisdom has been passed down from many generations. Most of us believe in this virtue of gratefulness as a component of happiness without needing evidence based research studies. Recently, science has caught up with what ancient wisdom has been preaching for many years. Modern science thru the rapidly growing field of positive psychology has elucidated clear benefits of cultivating gratitude on improved psychological, social and physical well-being. (Emmons 2003, Wood Froh & Geraghty 2010). In the original landmark study by Robert Emmons, considered to be the leading researcher on gratitude, participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison). Daily or weekly records were kept of their moods, coping and health behaviors, physical symptoms and overall life satisfaction. The cultivation of a grateful affect through daily or weekly journaling resulted in improved well-being, reduced physical complaints, increased exercise time and overall more positive outlook compared with the groups detailing hassles or neutral life events. (Emmons 2003). There are many reasons for the causal benefit of gratitude on well-being; better coping skills to negative life events, reduced social comparisons, less materialistic pursuits, improved self-esteem, and pro-social moral behavior (Emmons 2010). As I began to research the mechanism and principles behind HA, it became clear to me that gratefulness works precisely because it is an effective antidote to the adaptation process. A daily or weekly practice of expressing gratitude, either verbally or thru journaling, forces us to pay attention to all of the good in our lives. This sense of “paying attention” or of active appreciation allows us to remember what we have and by remembering, we are less prone to take the positive aspects of our lives for granted.
We now know thru evidence based research that developing and sustaining a grateful attitude is critical to optimal mental and physical health. More recent studies elucidate the effect of gratitude on increased parasympathetic activity with resultant lower blood pressure and cortisol levels (McCraty 2004). This has tremendous implications in our fight to effectively handle stress, lower the incidence of cardiovascular events, and ultimately live a more optimal life.
So we know that gratitude is good for us and may be the most effective strategy for thwarting hedonic adaptation. How do we incorporate the practice of gratefulness into our busy lives? How do we teach ourselves, our children and our peers to be more grateful? The regular practice of journaling has been heavily researched and found to be one of the most effective gratitude interventions available. The Stoics understood this and both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius had a daily practice of journaling. In fact, the opening chapter of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations details his giving of thanks to people in his life. Interestingly, there has been recent evidence that, similar to the Stoic practice of negative visualization, mentally subtracting the good from our lives may be more powerful in improving well-being than simply being thankful (Koo, Algoe 2008).
For me the practice of keeping a gratitude journal has been transformative. I have experimented with different methods and times of day to record my gratitude list. I have also tried various different frequencies ranging from daily to bi-weekly. What I have found to work best for me at this time in my life is to record a list of 5 things for which I am grateful. I do this early morning, usually before breakfast, and approximately 3 x/week. I use an Evernote app on my smart phone so I can easily access the journal. Not surprisingly, more frequent daily gratitude journaling became somewhat rote and lost its significance. I had adapted to the daily journaling practice. By performing 3-4x/week, I can keep the practice fresh, engage in vivid visualization, and more effectively count my blessings. As I have been doing this practice for over a year, I now find myself thinking of things throughout the day that I can write about in my gratitude journal. In essence, I am more mindful of the things around me, more appreciative of the good and less affected by daily trivial annoyances. Now I am not claiming to be a saint or to be free of worry and stress. I still become angry with my kids or upset at a difficult work situation. Those events will never completely be eliminated as long as we are active participants in our lives. What I have found recently is that the periods of feeling down have become shorter and are interspersed with longer periods of life satisfaction, thankfulness and meaning that have become the norm for me.
One other practice of gratitude that has worked well is what I call the “driveway intervention”. I spend a few seconds sitting in my driveway after arriving home from work to briefly reflect on how lucky I am to have a house to come home to, a family that loves me, and good health for all of us. By this simple intervention, it is very difficult, although not impossible, to be upset or frustrated with the kids for their clutter or yelling when I walk in the door. This practice allows me to find some space between the stimulus (messy rooms) and my optimal response (kissing, smiling, hugging everyone first rather than becoming agitated immediately). It is this space or moment of awareness that a practice of mindful gratitude provides and enables us to pay attention to the beauty around us and in our kids.
Variety really is the spice of life: No more Sushi Mondays
Quantity affects quality. I love the simplicity and power of those three words. We know that HA to all of the good things in our lives is the greatest obstacle to improved happiness and that active appreciation of these things is an effective antidote. In addition to cultivating habits of gratefulness, another powerful way to maintain attention on the pleasant aspects of our lives is to vary their timing. By simply changing the frequency and intensity of certain pleasurable activities, we can slow down or halt our adaptation to them. I learned this concept a few years ago. Our entire family loves sushi. The kids learned to eat it when they were very young and it continues to be their favorite meal to this day. When the kids were little, I often pushed for the convenience and the pleasure of eating takeout. It gave us something to look forward to amid the crying, baths and cleanup that we were immersed in at that time. Given that we all love sushi; it became the logical choice for takeout dinners. As I am prone to do, I took it too far. Before long, we were getting sushi not just every week but often a couple of times per week. Guess what happened? It stopped providing the same amount of pleasure. We didn’t anticipate and look forward to those dinners as much. We had all adapted to our sushi nights. Quantity (too much) had indeed affected quality (less pleasure). So what did we do? We changed the timing of the pleasurable activity – we forced ourselves to only eat sushi once per month. We would put it on the calendar and really look forward to it. Now sometimes we strayed a little and ate it a couple of times per month but even this timing had a positive effect on the amount of pleasure we derived from eating sushi. The optimal timing of positive and pleasurable activities is a constant battle for all of us. How do we know when there is too much of a good thing? At what point are we watching too much TV or having too much to drink? Is every day too much? How about exercise? Is there a point where training becomes excessive and ceases to provide the desired benefit? As Aristotle defined virtue as the perfect mean between extremes, he is exemplifying the concept of moderation in all of our actions. This ability to moderate behavior and activities is critical in our fight against HA.
In addition to varying the frequency of positive actions, we must also find ways to introduce variety into the action itself. Perhaps the most important area of our lives that HA is so pervasive is with our spouses and intimate relationships. Without understanding the concept of HA, many people simply “fall out of love” or “grow bored” with their partner. They search for new mates (to whom they have not yet adapted) in an effort to rekindle the sparks and excitement that they feel must be present at all times. Unfortunately, the cycle repeats itself as they grow more dissatisfied with their new relationship. As a first crucial step we must recognize the presence of the adaptation process in our marriages. Just like we can become used to eating sushi, we can just as easily take our spouse for granted. Unlike sushi, we can’t simply decrease the frequency of interaction with our spouse to slow down HA. We must find ways to captivate attention to them and to our relationship. One of the best ways to do this is by introducing variety thru new experiences and goals that are shared with one another. Most couple stagnate – they eat at the same restaurants, they vacation at the same places, they have the same conversations, and generally have a worse relationship as time goes on. They simply stop growing. They stop learning. They stop experimenting. They stop living. The ability to evolve as a person and as a couple takes effort. It takes time. It requires prioritization, experimentation and dedication. Reading and discussing books is a great way to have new conversations with your spouse. When I started immersing myself in philosophy and positive psychology, I was so excited to share some of these new principles with Tricia. We have had many conversations over a beer on how these concepts could be applied to ourselves and our family. Similarly as Tricia began pursuing her masters in counseling, she was constantly learning new theories and ideas that became the topic of even more happy hours. The important thing was the fact that we were both growing as individuals and, at the same time, sharing this growth with one another to evolve our relationship. Other ways that we have introduced variety in our lives is thru travel. We have been to Ireland (twice), Canada, Turks and Caicos and plan to travel to Europe and India over the next few years. You don’t have to travel far to get the benefit of variety. For our last anniversary (and probably one of the best), Tricia and I went on a bike ride all over Pittsburgh, stopped at a local lunch spot, relaxed by the point (Point State Park) and made it home before the kid’s bedtime. Simple but a new experience – that is the key.
HA states that we adapt quickly to the good in our lives. By choosing intentional thoughts and activities, we can increase our levels of well-being. In order to sustain this boost of happiness, we must vary the intensity and timing of these pleasurable behaviors while expressing heartfelt gratitude for the good aspects of our lives. By doing this, we are able to continue to pay attention to all of the “good” around us. This active appreciation allows us to slow or halt the adaptation process, experience more joy, and ultimately become happier.