Hedonic Adaptation

I learned a new term from the online Science of Happiness course I’m doing.

You know how a pleasurable activity gets less and less pleasurable the more you do it? For example, you’re crazy stressed and tired and you think about how nice it would be to sleep and lounge around and watch TV for WEEKS and not do any work. But then when you finally get a break or a long weekend, the first day or so is great and really relaxing, but as time goes on, you get bored. The rest isn’t pleasurable any more.

Or maybe you have a strong craving for potato chips, and the first handful tastes amazing, but after you’ve gone and eaten the whole bag, you feel crappy and don’t want to see chips ever again.

The fancy-sounding term for it is Hedonic Adaptation. (In economics we covered a similar or related concept called ‘diminishing marginal utility’, I think.) It’s basically a feedback loop, as you might expect. Once your bodily need for something is satisfied, you generally stop craving it.

And since too much salty snack food really isn’t good for you, when you’ve had too much, your body will tell you to stop – you’ll probably feel sick.

This seems straightforward and doesn’t tell us much; it just reinforces the common-sense knowledge that moderation really does make sense.

So why then, in the pursuit of pleasure, do so many of us ignore or override our own hedonic adaptation? Why do we, for example, keep buying more electronic toys or fancy skin care products, hoping (falsely) that more and more of these possessions will make us happier and happier, or give us a sense of excitement, or of being in control, or of being pampered?

Likely because when it comes to objects, rather than the body, we don’t have much of an adaptive mechanism that firmly says “STOP! You’ve had too much, and it’s not good for you!” We do have hedonic adaptation – electronic toys cease to be fun if we have a dozen of them – but we don’t have the sudden feeling of being disgusted with electronic toys. It’s not the same as sleeping too much, or eating too much. The physical connection is not quite there, so we don’t react the same way. (At least I don’t think so. I’d like to do some more research to see if there are any findings in the field of sustainable consumption that point to adaptive mechanisms that might make us disgusted with, or afraid of, say, too many objects or too much ‘clutter’ in our surroundings. Obviously some of us are neat freaks, but it’s not quite the same…I know some pretty tidy and organized folks who have WAY too much ‘stuff’.)

Also – according to some research mentioned in the course – it turns out that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. This is called emotional or affective forecasting. And the fact that we don’t do it well is one reason why we think things like, “Once I’m retired, I’m going to be much happier than I am now, and that happiness is going to last for a long time,” and typically wind up no happier in the medium-to-long term. Ditto for getting married, getting a bigger house, getting a nice car, etc. Our ineptitude at emotional forecasting also works the other way – we assume that negative events will CRUSH us and we’ll never recover, when actually it turns out we’re pretty adaptable to divorces, breakups, firings, etc. We consistently make mistakes regarding what will make us happy.

What I’d like to answer as I move along in my research and my completion of this course is: Why are we bad at affective forecasting? [Is it because our selfish genes actually don’t ‘want’ us to be too happy? Maybe errors in affective forecasting, combined with hedonic adaptation, is like a kind of false hope for happiness that keeps us stubbornly striving for ambitious achievements like promotions and big houses. I mean, maybe a promotion won’t make us happier, but maybe it will make us more successful in a Darwinian sense… Is our poor ability to emotionally forecast a kind of adaptive tendency?]

Also, can we improve our affective forecasting? (Is there a way to get good at accurately predicting what will really make us happy?)

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