Hedonic adaptation – the pointless pursuit of happiness?

Updated 23/09/2020

“When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy.” They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” – John Lennon
This is a famous quote that I find myself not particularly happy with (ha!) . Aiming for happiness as a goal in itself is dangerous, as it is an almost meaningless concept for long-term planning. Does aiming for happiness mean aspire to be in a blissful haze of ecstasy as frequently as possible? In that case maybe a heroin addict is on the right track. Does it mean being more emotionally stable? If so, doesn’t that mean being less happy (which is a rather extreme feeling)? Does it mean never having negative thoughts about yourself/partner/family/job? If the latter, this may be a major cause of sadness, as it can feel like any uncontrolled negative thoughts can induce a feeling of despair and failure. Buddhism teaches that craving leads to suffering, and that equanimity, or peace of mind, is the key to contentment. The idea is that the more pleasure you seek, the more elusive reproducing the initial ‘high’ becomes, and this pursuit develops into a ‘pilgrims progress’ of frustration. This tendency can also be called ‘Hedonic Adaptation’. A lottery winner will have a few days of joy, but will regress to a relatively similar level of happiness (the hedonic setpoint) and satisfaction soon after. This also explains why unfortunate people in a warzone manage to maintain apparently normal outlooks despite being surrounded by death and violence; even Vietnam war veterans who suffered solitary confinement develop excellent coping skills within prison, but struggled much more when released. Brickman, Coates, and Janoft–Bulman’s (1978) “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” discovered that paraplegic or quadraplegic individuals reported happiness levels only slightly below the national average for their age. Something as tragic as the death of a loved one is usually followed by a prolonged period of intense grief, but roughly 30% of parents of children who died from SIDs reported no significant depression, and were not subsequently victims of a later, delayed grief. The most interesting aspect of hedonic adaptation, however, is the possibility of sensitisation – in contrast to the desensitisation discussed above – which is the development of a more extreme emotional response to constant exposure. Examples of this include a wine-lovers apparent joy at tasting a slightly different fermented grape beverage, or your increasing anger at the relentless tweeting of a so-called president. This confounds the idea that individuals will become less extreme in their emotional reactions to all stimuli over time; this may be true, but only particular kinds of stimuli will case adaptation, and others sensitisation. The kinds of stimuli are relevant, but just as relevant is your genes; 50% of your happiness levels are dictated by heritable traits, so if your parents appear to be quite content then there is a strong case that your future lies on a similar happiness baseline. What is the lesson here: that we are not in control of our happiness? Not at all. We are in control of where we direct our attention, and it appears that pursuing new interests that allow you to increase sensitization with discovery (such as wine-tasting, music, reading, any learnable skill) will produce more extreme emotions when you participate. This knowledge of desensitization also allows us to recognise that triumph and disaster are imposters (to paraphrase Kipling), and not to be too distracted by the potential consequences of either. Worrying about the likelihood of a personal hardship probably does far more damage to our long term happiness than any actual misfortune would ever do. “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.2 – Unknown SwiftCase helps thriving businesses, swamped by growing demand, automate and organise, to focus on what matters — loved by 1000s of users across Insurance, Finance, Legal, Service & Contractor sectors.
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