Hedonic Adaptation is Making You Poor and Unhappy

Hedonic adaptation is the human ability to get used to pretty much any situation. This can be great when bad things happen to us.

One study measured the happiness of people with end-stage kidney disease against the happiness of healthy people. The kidney patients had to spend nine hours per week going through hemodialysis and stick to a strict diet. Both the kidney patients and the healthy controls felt that the healthy people would be significantly happier.

But they weren’t. Despite everything that the patients had to go through, they were just as happy as their healthy counterparts. They had quickly adjusted to their new situation and had adapted to it.

This is a really powerful ability! We can be happy regardless of what we are going through!

The problem is that hedonic adaptation also applies to positive situations.

Hedonic adaptation and lifestyle inflation

Buying that new car, that bigger house, or that new gadget will make us happier. It will.

But only for a short period of time.

We will get used to our new toy or our new situation and that will become our new baseline. Our happiness will come back down to earth.

We remember that happiness boost, though. And if a new Ford made us happy, then a new Lexus should make us extra happy. And I just got a raise, so damn it, I deserve it!

But that happiness boost will wear off long before I finish making the payments on my new car, and I will be back to where I started.

Despite how natural it feels to keep upgrading and improving your material possessions, this is an expensive way to try to buy happiness.

First, we know it will not actually work for any length of time. 

A study in the 1970s of lottery winners in Illinois found that despite winning a potentially life-changing amount of money, the winners had fallen back down to the same happiness level as everyone else within a year.

Second, chasing happiness in this way means you will always be dependent upon an ever-increasing income. And being dependent on others for your income brings its own type of stress and unhappiness.

What if you lose your job? What if you hate your new boss and want to quit? What if you just want to spend more time with your family and less time traveling for work?

If you follow the path of lifestyle inflation you need those paychecks to keep coming to keep buying your baseline level of happiness.

Combating hedonic adaptation

We’ve already explored a number of better ways to make yourself happier, such as finding flow, engaging in acts of kindness, spending on others, watching sports, and going to the library. We will also continue to look into more proven ways to find more sustainable happiness.

Instead, let’s look at how to actively avoid automatically adapting to the positive things in our life.

The first step in combating hedonic adaptation is recognizing that it exists. If you can recognize that an expensive purchase you are considering will only make you happy for a limited period of time, then it makes it easier to avoid falling into that trap.

According to psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness, one key is practicing gratitude. By actively taking time out of each day to appreciate the things that we have, we can slow the process of taking these things for granted.

Another important step is to avoid comparing yourself and your possessions to those of your neighbors and friends. We’ve already seen that “comparison is the thief of joy,” but with hedonic adaptation we can see that jealousy of what our friends have and do can make us spend far more than we should in addition to being less happy.

We need to recognize that keeping up with the Joneses will not make us happy.

The final tip today is that if you want to avoid getting used to the positive things in your life, engage in a wide variety of little purchases and activities rather than a few big ones.

Living in a bigger house will make you happier for a limited period of time. But what if you took some of that extra money that you would have spent on the mortgage and instead spent it on something different each week?

One week you could go to the movies. The next you could go out to a nice dinner. After that, maybe you could have a family picnic. Maybe try a long weekend road trip to some place you’ve never been.

Ignoring for a moment that this is a more expensive route to happiness than others that we’ve discussed here, it is a far more effective way to become happier than spending a lot of money on a big upgrade to one area of your life. By adding variety to the equation, you are ensuring that you will not get used to any one of these purchases or activities. This will prevent it from becoming a part of your baseline and will allow you to get a new happiness boost each time.

Have you experienced hedonic adaptation in your life? Any tips for beating it that you could share? Join us in the comments section below!

17 thoughts on “Hedonic Adaptation is Making You Poor and Unhappy”

  1. Certainly guilty of that in our spendy years. The odd nice dinner became a number of very nice dinners. One great vacation became two in a given year. Although we never acquired stuff. Always spent most on experiences.

    Having kids taught us a lot about the simple things in life we enjoy most. Like hiking. And skiing. But we knew that before. Now we do so much of this as a family and although skiing as a hobby can be expensive, it is intentional spending and that’s what matters.

    Challenging everything before you spend is powerful and if you have hobbies and passions that do cost a bit of money, that is OK as long as other things are reined in. As one long standing blogger has said :
    ” You can buy anything. You can not buy everything ”
    Mr. PIE recently posted…Lessons in Investing: 5 Soundbites from the CEO of VanguardMy Profile

  2. You could also make many parallels to the short-term enjoyment of pornography. Potentially that versus the long-term fulfillment of a relationship or just general love with people.

    Very well phrased. And very important for others to understand.

  3. I always like reading your ideas. They really teach me a lot more in understanding myself, psychology wise. I never heard of hedonistic adaptation. It’s the classic “we always need to have more” argument, that we’re never going to be satisfied with what we have currently. The way to combat it is to recognize that it exists so that we can control it and keep it at a minimum!
    Finance Solver recently posted…Environment Matters Most to Career SuccessMy Profile

  4. Such a smart interesting post. Don’t be surprised if Malcolm Gladwell comes calling 🙂

    I am definitely guilty of this a lot. I think it’s only when life slows down and I have time to reflect that I can think about how great my life really is. It happened to me when I was driving home tonight and was alone with my thought that I realized how truly blessed I really am. I think I need to start driving with the radio off and the windows down more often 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…How We Save Money on FoodMy Profile

  5. Yes I’ve been there. We used to buy cars on a regular basis and, though we always had some (ir)rational reason to buy them, it was simply that we enjoyed the little boost of happiness. Today, buying a new car would have the opposite effect. Now I realize any extra money spent on a new car would put us behind on our early retirement plans. In addition, a car has little value to me anymore. If it gets me from point A to point B at a reasonable cost, I’m happy. That money can buy us time, which is so much greater than any thing we could purchase.

    And I totally agree that gratitude is a huge factor in keeping this type of hedonic adaptation at bay. Practicing gratitude has limitless benefits.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Save more money by stopping your impulse buyingMy Profile

  6. Another great post ! Very well said. I think I am hooked on to your blog now. Your posts really add value to my life.

    I find myself in the same situation now, where I got adapted to my work for quite a long time. Its all good here (I think it is the hedonic adaptation that is making me feel this way), but I have been here so long. Also the work gets boring with time and you lose touch with other things going on out of your workplace.

  7. I am currently trapped in some weird financial/investing/frugality version of this. On one hand, I’ve changed so much. But in reality, my personality is almost entirely the same. Instead of caring about shoes and stuff, now I judge myself and my success based on how much I save. I basically need to learn how to mind my own business.

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