"If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich."
Hedonic adaptation is the psychological explanation of how we end up in the rat race of life.
In their extensive research on the topic, Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein (who you may remember from our email on curiosity and “priming the pump”) coined the term.
Let’s take a step back for a second and look at those words.
Hedonic comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “pleasure”. So you can think of this concept as the adaptation of our pleasure or happiness level.
Think of happiness as existing on a scale, with zero as “neutral happiness”.
When you really want something, let’s say a new pair of sneakers, you will fall below your neutral. You are in a wanting state, preventing you from being fully content with the present.
Then, the moment you get those sneakers, for a brief moment your happiness spikes. But not long after, the novelty begins to wear off.
A few weeks later, you see a friend with another pair that you realize you like more than your own.
The seeds of want are planted. And the cycle continues.
It happens with everything.
A new job. A higher salary. A bigger home.
We begin to take what we worked so hard for, for granted. Then all of the hard work, time and money that went into getting that thing become history, and our present happiness levels return to neutral — or negative.
Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about this in Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Latin for “Moral Letters to Lucilius”), in letter 16 (“On Philosophy, the Guide of Life”):
“…Nature's wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless…Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”
How do we beat the relentless return to neutral?