Reprogramming the Mind with Hedonic Adaptation

I don’t have many boring friends. With my closest friends, there are no topics off the table –Β finance, politics, and sometimes this blog. When I tell them that we spend less than $40k a year and still get to do everything we want, they believe that’s how I feel. The most common response I get is, “That’s great for you, and I might be a little jealous, but living like that isn’t something I could do.”

Some people love stinky cheese, but it’s an acquired taste.

We are all being honest, and I can understand when they say “I like being able to walk into a restaurant or bar and order anything I want.” I’ve heard this same phrase from several friends, and I used to be the same way. I remember when happy hours were my reward, and I spent money without additional consideration. Now I consider the value of any purchase I make, and I’m happier for it, even if it seems like a pain to some friends.

I tell them to chalk it up to hedonic adaption – more money doesn’t make you happier. But after studying a bit more about hedonic adaptation, I realized there is more to it than just the part about money.

What is Hedonic Adaptation?

Our bodies are full of control systems that are constantly working to bring us back to a nominal operating condition. When we get hot, we start to sweat, the sweat evaporates from our skin cooling our body. This is an example ofΒ the body’s internal thermostat adapting to a change in environment.

Hedonic adaptation is like a thermostat on our happiness levels. Instead of regulating the physical aspects of our bodies, it deals with our moods, feelings, and attitudes toward different events in life. Sometimes hedonic adaptation includes sensory changes to the way we perceive the physical world, like becoming less offended by a bad smell. But most hedonic adaptations affect changes to our interests, values, and goals.

The Hedonic Treadmill Is Only One Aspect of Hedonic Adaptation

Most people hear about hedonic adaptation in reference to the 1978 study, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” In this study, researchers compared the levels of happiness between paraplegic accident victims, lottery winners, and a control group. The results showed that despite life events that most of us perceive as a huge gain or loss, everyone’s happiness levels eventually settled back to the original average.

Hedonic adaptation is the mechanism that drives our happiness levels back to neutral. It makes the happiness derived from financial gain short lived. Our caveman minds are oblivious to this, and we end up on the hedonic treadmill, running toward money without ever finding lasting happiness.

Simple enough, but if we adapt to everything and return to the same happiness levels, why bother doing anything? Well, it turns out we don’t adapt to everything the same way as we do to piles of cash.

What You Don’t Hear About Hedonic Adaptation – Sensitization

As a kid I found any food that smelled like stinky feet to be repulsive. I never liked aged cheeses, but over time, I was exposed to more and more of them. Eventually, my senses adapted to help me perceive the smell as less vile. Then something else happened. I started to like those foul cheeses.

Like an unstable thermostat that’s telling a furnace to keep firing even when it’s already hot, my mind went past the neutral point, and kept going. It was telling me to love stinky cheese more and more.

This runs counter to the money example, and is an example of sensitization. It’s a hedonic adaptation process where our sensitivity to stimuli grows rather than normalizing or shrinking.

Sensitization can also go in the other direction. Consider an annoying co-worker or roommate. The more we come in contact with them, the more sensitive we are to their faults. Some studies have found we also have trouble adapting to certain sounds, like highway noise. So if you can’t sleep at night because the asshole neighbor’s dog keeps barking and your head feels like it might explode, you just might actually be going unstable.

But Why Would Hedonic Adaptation Be Different for Different Things?

So we can be naturally driven to like certain foods, hate certain assholes, and can’t fully enjoy massive piles of cash. But why? One answer might be in our DNA, and the traits that were passed from our Cro-Magnon ancestors for survival.

That stinky cheese has some awesome fats and proteins, it makes sense for us to adapt to crave them. We also have a drive to reproduce, which explains why even bad sex is still pretty darn good. While eating and reproducing were traits necessary for a Cro-Magnon to pass on their genes, they didn’t exactly need a Bugatti Veyron.

Some delicious aged cheeses at a market in Cassis, France.

But why can’t we adapt to assholes? Maybe it’s because of the constant negative stimuli we get from them. Researchers found that the level of happiness does return to the control group average for paraplegics, but they did not see the same response in patients with degenerative diseases. The paraplegics had one traumatic event to overcome, while those with degenerative diseases were facing new impairments and painsΒ on a regular basis.

Hedonic Adaptation and Time

Our response to events can also be dependent on our current mental state. Let’s say you just got a big promotion. Your happiness level might hit a 9/10. Then a few hours later your boss tells you you’ll get an even bigger office with a view. Your happiness level was already at a 9/10, and maybe now it goes to a 9.5/10. But what if you got that new bigger office a year later? An event like that, on its own, might have taken you from a 0/10 to a 9/10 – a much larger delta in happiness.

That’s an example of shifting adaptation. Since happiness is relative, lumping a bunch of positive events together only adds marginal happiness.

So Can We Hack Hedonic Adaptation?

There is a control system driving our moods, and studies have uncovered some of the science behind how it ticks. Using these blueprints, it might be possible to optimize our happiness, health, and wealth by using hedonic adaptation to shift our perceived interests, values and goals.

Hacking the Sensitization Process of Hedonic Adaptation

My lust for stinky cheeses is one example of sensitization, but let’s consider physical exercise. Some people are literally addicted to it. For the rest of us, it’s convenient enough to just assume those people were born loving pain, or maybe they’re simply nuts. But what if exercise is like stinky cheese?

Starting a workout routine is uncomfortable, even painful. But over time we adapt to the pain. Then you start getting good at running, swimming, cycling, or lifting weights. The better you get, the more enjoyable the exercise becomes. The response to exercise shifts from being negative to being positive and keeps climbing. People that reach this level aren’t lying when they say they love to exercise, their perception has shifted.

Is a Bit of Discomfort the Barrier to a More Comfortable Life?

I believe living an early retirement lifestyle can become addictive in the same way. We had a goal to reach financial independence, and over time we kept tasting the stinky cheese of a more frugal lifestyle. Sometimes we were repulsed and backed off. But over time, avoiding excess and targeting spending to maximize happiness started becoming addictive. Our perspective shifted. We were getting happier spending less, and watching our wealth grow. From the outside looking in, that just doesn’t make any sense.

Living on less, and saving more, allowed me to quit my job. Now I don’t have to deal with the constant deadlines and occasional assholes I could never adapt to. The reduced stress gives me more lasting happiness than I got spending twice as much money.

Maybe anyone can shift their perspective, and be happier with less. Maybe there are more stinky cheese lovers out there.

Wine and cured meats are also acquired tastes.

Hacking Hedonic Adaptation and Time

We know that a new car isn’t going to give lasting happiness, but there is going to be an undeniable spike in initial happiness. If we take the area under the curve of that spike, exactly how much happiness are we getting per dollar? It’s probably not the most efficient.

What if instead of going for that new car spike in happiness, we took that money and targeted our spending to maximize both the size and frequency of our happiness spikes? You could get a used car for $5,000 and take a bunch of vacations throughout the year. The spike in happiness from a used car might not be the same as having that new car, but spending the money on vacations through the year would result in more frequent spikes in happiness. The total amount of happiness per dollar will be much higher.

Squeezing the Most Juice Out of Life

Maybe you’re on the fence about trying a new lifestyle. On paper, you know it’s good for you, and yet right now it seems miserable. But perhaps there is a future version of you who finds pleasure where you see pain. That person might be waiting to be set loose after a taste of something different. The new you might even start to crave the acquired taste of an early retirement lifestyle. That person could even find recurring and lasting happiness more easily attainable. So why not try it out? It’s worth a taste, or two, at least.

26 thoughts on “Reprogramming the Mind with Hedonic Adaptation

  1. I like the point about spreading the happiness around. There was a movie or TV show I watched some time ago. I don’t even remember the name. I do however remember the underlying philosophy. The human brain defines happiness as relative. Without unhappiness or at least lack of high happiness everything melds due to lack of reference points. As such it really is that Delta you have to look out for.

  2. I hate people who are assholes. We are actually a species that thrives on cooperation, not competition. As hunter-gathers, we would take care of the weak, sick and elderly first. What is good for the group is good for the individual. So, having an asshole co-worker, neighbor or family member goes against our ‘primal’ instinct and makes us feel that there isn’t cooperation. In baboon societies, there is a prominence of having an alpha male in a clan. They’ve measured the stress levels of the others in the group and it was really high, until that alpha dies, then stress levels return back to normal. I agree that the more financial flexibility we have, the less we need to tolerate assholes. πŸ™‚

  3. Well, now I need to eat cheese and drink some of that wine in my cupboard πŸ˜€

    And be extra smug about the frugal win because I bought 15 bottles for $110 (happiness spike one) then got awards 3,000 frequent flyer points (spike two) and I’ve been working my way through the wine over 5 months (spikes 3 through 17, 1 per bottle!)

  4. Great points you bring up. Its about the right mindset. Unfortunately, most people have been heavily influenced by family, friends, society, marketing etc from an early age. You grow up and just dont know any different than what you’ve seen your whole life and it can be hard to think differently. The rich corporations would love to keep you buying their new cars, eating out all the time, and buying and upgrading to a bunch of stuff you dont need all the time. This is why most people cant retire or attain FI. In many cases the root-cause of the problem is themselves and their poor choices and habits. Its not that you cant spend some money to try things or enjoy yourself, but you probably dont really need it as much or often as you think you do.

    • The cards are stacked against us, and it’s very easy to get on the hedonic treadmill. Luckily we can pull ourselves off of it, but it does take some will power to overcome the initial hump. Those of us that do are happier, healthier, and wealthier for it πŸ™‚

  5. I love this approach. We had an inkling, based on home improvements. We could never afford to do everything at once, but I sensed that you wouldn’t get the same satisfaction if you did. We really have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of admiring projects for weeks.

    I think you are really onto something here. Thanks. Oh, and I never had to acquire a taste for stinky cheese (or Scotch). I wonder what that means?!

    • That’s some great insight on renovations! We took our time doing most of our home renovations ourselves. There’s nothing like having a beer and admiring some new updates after a solid days work. But after a while you get used to the changes. It’s nice to have incremental updates so there’s always something new to enjoy πŸ™‚

  6. Love this, Mr. CK. I am in the midst of writing a post on a similar topic – great minds think alike. πŸ™‚ I will definitely link to yours – this is the best post I’ve seen that explores all the aspects of hedonistic adaptation.

    On a happiness scale of 1-10, they say most of us stabilize around a 7. When I think about it, this is definitely true for me. I also think expectations have an impact – like you mention about the corner office. When we are given news of something that will bring us great happiness and we expect it, but then it’s removed or delayed, our happiness level tanks.

    • Absolutely, there is that future expectation component. For example one study found college students rank Fridays as a better day of the week then Sundays. Even though they have classes on Friday, Sundays are less enjoyable because they spend the day dreading Monday.

      I’ll be looking forward to reading your post πŸ™‚

  7. Mmmmm, stinky cheese and wine. Though I learned a hard lesson with stinky cheese and sour beer one time. I had a weird reaction where it felt like carbonation was building in my chest to the point of severe pain. Fortunately it only lasted about 15 minutes. Everyone else seemed fine, so evidently this problem is limited to me.

    Just curious, since pulling the FIRE trigger have you felt any sort of lifestyle adaptation? Not from the standpoint of being ‘over’ FIRE, more from the perspective of going through an initial high that then settled some over time.

    • Great question! Writing this article made me contemplate how my happiness levels have been since quitting. After the first few weeks, I definitely started to settle into my new lifestyle. But while I have adapted to this new way of life, I am still noticeably happier overall. I think the answer to that is a combination of reduced stress and gratitude.

      The stresses of a coming Monday, looming deadline, or a shitty email are gone. I spend less time arguing in my head and more time relaxing, practicing hobbies, and studying self improvement strategies to share on this blog.

      Gratitude is also one way to boost overall happiness, and right now it seems to be coming pretty easy to me. Any time things do not go my way or I’m having a down day, all I have to say to myself is “well you could be sitting at work.” That seems to put a smile on my face pretty quick πŸ™‚

      • “The stresses of a coming Monday, looming deadline, or a shitty email are gone.” (sigh) You have no idea how pumped and bummed out this makes me feel simultaneously. I’m still that guy sitting at work πŸ˜‰

    • Cool! The East Coast beer scene is coming up fast. I just heard about two new breweries opening up withing 10 minutes of my place. The New England IPAs are very addictive πŸ™‚

  8. Something that’s interesting to me is that it’s not the amount of money that one has that makes them happy, it’s the increase in money. Why some millionaires aren’t happy, and why a windfall only creates temporary happiness.

    • Yeah it’s those singular events that quickly fade. We can even get used to a rate of change, for example expecting at least a 3% raise every year. At least once we know it, we can hop off the treadmill, and channel our energy to find more sustainable sources of happiness πŸ™‚

  9. Great read Mr. CK. Your post got me thinking, and that’s saying something.

    You’re onto something here. For example, I derive a great amount of pleasure from doing things in a frugal manner, that most people pay considerably more to do. When it happens, it feels like I’m winning at life.

    Some people might look and see deprivation and/or hardship. I only see success.

    It’s almost like someone took a battery in our brains and flipped around the positive and negative terminals.

    • Glad you enjoyed the read! I do think we have the wiring in our brains flipped around, and I think other people can flip their wiring as well. Once you start saving and optimizing your finances, some things that seem like a pain to other people just become a game or challenge.

      Travel hacking is a good example for me. I love the travel itself, but I also get a sense of accomplishment from piecing together the points to get a free trip πŸ™‚

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