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Hedonic Adaptation, Experience Stretching, And Why You’re The Happiest You’ll Ever Be – Daily Blog #55

If you’ve ever broken a leg you’ll know that getting around isn’t all that fun. Crutches help, sure, but it’s a sweaty, difficult, and palm blistering experience that I do not miss.

Back when I last did mine (I’ve done it twice now, like an idiot), I did anything I could to keep “walking” to a minimum. Travel just wasn’t worth the pain.

It was back in 2012 and at the time I was a big CS:GO fan; a pc game that has a huge competitive and professional scene, which at times is just crazy to think about.

Anyway, because I didn’t really enjoy the pain that came with crutches, my Friday nights quickly became nights of watching CS:GO online. I really got into the whole competitive thing and loved watching pro’s do what they do.

It was possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever gotten into, and I regret nothing.

This went on for a few Fridays in a row before I had an epiphany – I decided to crack open a beer. At the time I was madly into Blue Moon, and so there I sat with a glass garnished with a classy looking, but otherwise useless, orange segment.

Friday nights just went up a gear.

Now I know what you’re thinking – “Jeeze Shane, does it get any better than that? How can a man live a life filled with so much pleasure and gluttony

Ohhhhhh you’ve a lot to learn, little one – you just need to add some chocolate into the mix.

It was only a couple of weeks later before I added in a Yorkie. Nestle chocolate usually leaves a lot to be desired but the mixture of girth and the “oh so good” melt in your mouth feeling is second to none.

And there you have it – the perfect broken leg Friday night in. That’s yours to keep for free, so don’t tell me I’ve never done anything for you.

This ended up being routine for the guts of 4 weeks, that is until one night when I forgot to get beer and didn’t have any chocolate.

Before I knew it the dream was over and I was dragged back into the harshness of reality that is nothing more than tea with your nerdy game watching.

I was left with a tainted view of an evening that only a few weeks before felt nothing short of bliss. Honest to god I didn’t even want to watch games anymore and was actually quite annoyed; I just didn’t see the point.

This is an absolutely perfect example of Hedonic Adaptation, or more colloquially called – Experience Stretching.

What is Experience Stretching?

We could go down a deeeeeep rabbit hole with this, so let’s keep it simple: Hedonic Adaptation is a term used to describe our minds reverting to a baseline level of happiness as we gain new experiences and buy new things.

Essentially it is your Experience Stretching out to make your new, higher level of happiness normal.

It’s the exact reason why something that I used to really appreciate – drinking tea and watching games – felt like I was being dealt a short straw.

And that’s the problem with experience stretching: it doesn’t let us see the positives of a situation because it just doesn’t measure up to ones we’ve experienced in the past.

The unfortunate thing is that this is a part of our evolutionary history and there is little we can do to stop our minds adapting to the situations we’re most commonly in. Be that for positive or for negative (more on that later).

So contrary to logical thought, experiencing more and having nicer things doesn’t actually make us happier in the long term. All it does is give us short term pleasure until that eventually becomes the new normal and we revert back to our base level of happiness.

History And Background.

There’s been a serious amount of research done on this, and I ended up in many the hole reading up on it. It’s quite the interesting topic.

My favorite study was one that compared two groups of people – one group who just won the lottery, and another who just became paraplegic.

Both groups were interviewed and tested at a number of stages all the way up to a year after the initial incident. The findings were that both groups had all, more or less, returned to the base level of happiness they had before any changes took place.

What the F.

Whatever about the lotto winners, money does come and go after all, but I can only imagine that becoming paraplegic takes an incredible toll on a person’s outlook on life. One that I’d think would take more than 12 months to fully get your head around.

But apparently not. Apparently within 12 months your mind will have processed it all, adjusted, and will continue to let you live a happy life.

Man the human mind is an amazing thing, right?

But quickly this raised a very worrying question for me: If we always revert back to a base level of happiness, then why are we even bothering to change it?

Honestly, I’m still not sure. I’ve got no definite answer and I think that’s a pretty philosophical question that may not have a truly right answer. But there are a couple of points that I do want to raise which helped settle my worry a bit.

The first is that our base level isn’t neutral, it’s positive. So for the most part people default to an outlook that us Irish would describe as “Ah yeah, I’m grand like”.

The second is actually a quote from Mr Money Mustache – “Happiness isn’t the addition of more experiences or more things, it’s the removal of problems”.

Holy crap that doesn’t half sing to me. It’s totally on the button, and addresses the conflict of knowing that money doesn’t buy happiness, but being poor and homeless ain’t that much crack either.

The third point that cropped up is that while it might not be possible to drastically adjust our base level of happiness very fast, we can reduce the effects of Hedonic Adaptation and keep ourselves at that elevated happiness state for longer.

How To Slow Experience Stretching

There are two methods we can use to slow down the speed at which our experience stretches (I’m don’t think that’s phrased right, but you get the idea.)

The first method, Variety Based, works by eliminating links that may exist between new and old experiences. If something isn’t an extension of something else, it’s a little difficult for our minds to compare them to one another.

The second method, Appreciation Based, is concerned with slowing down time and taking in the world around us.

Variety Based Methods:

  • Experiences Over Products:
    • A surfing trip in the summer has little to do with a cookery course in the winter. They ain’t really linked at all and I can’t see experience stretching being a huge concern here.
    • On the other hand buying a fancy new camera to replace an older one sounds great, but both are capable of taking pictures just fine. Buying this new camera will make you happier in the short term sure, but eventually you’ll end up back the baseline happiness level you had before you bought it.
  • Doing Less:
    • Avoiding hedonic adaptation entirely isn’t really possible. It’s going to happen whether we want it to or not, so all we can do is reduce the impact it has. One way of doing that is by experiencing less.
    • Initially, that sounds lame as hell, but I mean doing less of the things we don’t want to do. I don’t want to waste my time, money, and experience appreciation capabilities on things I don’t want to do, things that will only make the things I DO WANT TO DO, less awesome.

Appreciation Base Methods:

  • Permission to Make Mistakes
    • Failing is bad, right? I couldn’t disagree more. And letting yourself make mistakes when experiencing something new will not only take the pressure off a bit, but let you enjoy the whole learning process. It turns a negative time into a positive one, something you can really stop and appreciate.
  • Stopping to smell the roses
    • Honestly, I think this is the best experience stretching solution. Life moves fast nowadays, so fast that we can often get caught up in it. But chases are that if you’re reading this you’re not doing too badly. So stop, wait a minute, and remember that things really aren’t all that bad.

There is one more thing you can do, but it’s a little on the extreme side and less of a day-to-day thing. I see it as a bit of a “doomsday” protocol, something to reach for when you’re feeling that nothing else is working.

Earlier on I said that hedonic adaptation exists because it allows us to become happy no matter what life throws our way. If we were only happy in one particular situation, only able to work to our potential under a specific set of circumstances, then as a species we’d not have lasted very long.

Thankfully evolution sorted this out for us and now our happiness level can adjust either up or down based on the world around us, and this is something we can use to our advantage.

Forced Under-Indulgence is a method you can use to reset your appreciation of modern-day conveniences and allows you to remember just how lucky you have it.

Living off beans and toast for a month would suck, but a steak dinner at the end of it all would taste so damn good.

Camping out in the rain for a week really opens your eyes to the wonder that is under floor heating and the feeling it leaves on your toes at 2am in the morning.

And while these are pretty extreme cases, you can take them as far as you’d like. The point is that hedonic adaptation works both ways and if you feel like you’ve got a serious appreciation problem on your hands, then this should do the trick.

Closing Thoughts

While I enjoyed learning about this, something I’ve never heard of before, it has left me with some things to think about, mainly what it means to be happy.

While some of the solutions do make sense, and while I do want to appreciate how good I have it as much as possible, I don’t see myself ever limiting my purchases as much as I probably should.

I’m a big tech geek so while I do plan on making a bigger effort to pick experiences over products, I don’t see myself buying only the minimum from here on out.

What I do see myself doing though is really stopping to smell the roses. It’s something I try to do already, something that I’d consider to be one of the nicest things a person can do. It really helps put things into perspective and reminds me that things could always be worse.

I’ve found it to be very interesting to research and its kick started a number of different thought streams in my mind.

What about you, though? Got any thoughts you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments section of the post down below.

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