Hedonic Adaptation

03.07.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course Consumer behavior: Becoming an empowered consumer by Maureen McGuinness


Welcome to Section 2: Psychological Barriers! In this section, you’ll learn about psychological exercises that can help us spend less money, starting with hedonic adaptation.

A study of lottery winners and paraplegics showed that six months after the life-changing event, happiness levels stabilized. Lottery winners were not happier and paraplegics were not unhappier. It took six months for each group to return to the same level of happiness that they had prior to the life-changing event. It’s hard to believe, but this phenomenon can be explained by hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

If you’ve ever been promoted, remember how you felt. Were you excited? Proud? Happy? All of the above? How long did those positive feelings last? A day? A week? A month? It’s unlikely that the joy of being promoted lasted more than a month. After initial positive feelings and elation, it’s likely that the reality of the promotion started to set in. If the promotion meant taking on more responsibilities and being under more pressure, then the initial positive emotions may have been replaced by negative ones: stress and worry.


Using Hedonic Adaptation

Knowing about hedonic adaptation is important, but how do you apply your knowledge to your situation? First, you can be more realistic about predicting how you’ll feel when you purchase a new luxurious car. For example, if you think, “I will be happier once I have a new luxurious car,” there’s an expectation of permanence in your statement. The problem is that your assumption is that more luxury will equal more happiness. We often presume that more money is the answer because we believe that another purchase will provide lasting happiness. If we think back to our last extravagant purchase, can we tell ourselves honestly that it provided happiness? It may not sound as exciting, but a more realistic statement may be, “It will be fun and exciting to buy a new luxurious car, but it won’t provide lasting happiness.”

Reminding yourself that emotions are fleeting and that our happiness will return to a stable level is key to setting helpful expectations. What most of us don’t realize is that hedonic adaptation does not just apply to when we get a promotion or a windfall; you can use hedonic adaptation to get used to a “downgraded” lifestyle.

Why would anyone deliberately downgrade their lifestyle?

The school of philosophy known as stoicism teaches us that the path to happiness is found in accepting that which we have been given in life and by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain. Stoics believe that in order to have a greater appreciation of our lives, we should practice temporary deprivation.


Experiments with Temporary Deprivation

Entrepreneur and productivity hacker Tim Ferriss found that temporary deprivation helps people take more risks. Despite being worth millions, Ferriss “practices poverty” regularly and highlights this excerpt from a letter from Seneca to sum up the benefits of doing so:

“Set aside a number of days during which you shall be content with a scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care, that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress and it is while fortune is kind, that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace, the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earth, works with no enemy in sight and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch, when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

Now that you know that the joy of your next purchase will be fleeting (and that the sad feelings of being fired will also be fleeting), will you still be tempted to spend your way to happiness?

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how a marshmallow experiment in the 1960s impacted the lives of children and gave psychologists key insights into instant gratification.


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