Aidan's Infinite Play 34 Why You're Never Satisfied In College: Hedonic Adaptation

Aidan's Infinite Play 34 Why You're Never Satisfied In College: Hedonic Adaptation
Photo by Alexis Fauvet / Unsplash

Hello players!

When I first got into Cornell, I was ecstatic.

I remember sitting in my room, parents by my side, opening up the acceptance letter and radiating with joy. For a few weeks, life was bliss. After the first few months of being at Cornell, however, my joy began to recede.

Now that I've been there for over two years, I rarely think about how lucky I am to be at an Ivy League institution.

What happened?

I experienced hedonic adaptation, the tendency for humans to return to a happiness set point after positive or negative changes in their life. Hedonic adaptation is a universal phenomenon of human existence. Positive changes like winning the lottery, graduating college, and getting married generally don't permanently impact our happiness. Similarly, negative changes like failing a test, getting divorced, or even becoming paraplegic don't affect us over the long term nearly as much as you would expect. For everything in life, we generally return to our happiness set point after a few weeks or months.

This is what happened to me.

Initially, getting into Cornell was one of the greatest feelings of my life, but as time went on, I stopped appreciating it and returned to my happiness set point.

When hearing about this phenomenon and experiencing it myself, I felt dreary. Are humans doomed never to be happy with what we have and always want more? So I set out to uncover if there were things we could do to fight against hedonic adaptation.

I learned something beautiful.

Every human's happiness set point is different depending on their genetics, but there are ways that we can influence our set point to be higher.

In this article, I will be exploring the research that led me to there by going into:

  • The Three Horrible Effects Of Hedonic Adaptation
  • The Three Causes Of Hedonic Adaptation
  • Methods To Fight Against Hedonic Adaptation

Make sure to read to the end of the post because there's one method in particular I call stepping off the hedonic treadmill which has changed my life the most out of everything I discuss. Hopefully it can do the same for you.

The Three Horrible Effects of Hedonic Adaptation

There are three horrible effects of hedonic adaptation:

  • It keeps us on the hedonic treadmill
  • It creates a tragedy of the commons
  • It makes us horrible at predicting what will make us happy in the future

It Keeps Us On The Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for what hedonic adaptation does to us when we aren't aware of it.

On a treadmill, you are always running in place. You don't get anywhere even if you increase the speed or run for longer. Similarly, hedonic adaptation makes it so that no matter how many goals you reach, positive or negative things happen to you, you always go back to your happiness set point, as if nothing happened in the first place.

In effect, you constantly delude yourself into thinking once you reach the next milestone, you can be happy, only to have the milestone increase every time you reach it.

A great example of an industry that understands this best is video gaming.

Great games keep players engaged by fighting against hedonic adaptation.

They provide ever-increasing goals, rewards, levels, and unlocks. The games that keep people playing the longest have an end game that allows people to continue diving into their curiosities, either through social mechanics that keep players engaged from human interaction or game elements that keep things fresh.

Contrast that to real life, where people don't naturally keep things fresh, and it's easy to see why so many--like me during my middle and high school years--become addicted to video games.

If you would like to learn more about how we can make our real lives more engaging by applying what makes games so engaging to it, check out my video playlist on gamification on YouTube.

It Creates A Tragedy Of The Commons

Hedonic adaptation creates a tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is a game in game theory that occurs when individuals in a group collectively act selfishly for their benefit in a way that hurts the group as a whole. For example, say there is a town with a group of shepherds. The shepherds have grass for the sheep to graze on, but the town commons has by far the nicest grazing spot. Every shepherd has an incentive to add one more sheep to his flock and graze it on the town commons, but when everyone fattens their flock, the grass is grazed faster than it can regrow, and all the sheep starve.

In effect, every shepherd is incentivized to add one more sheep to the flock, but if every shepherd does this, it will lead to tragedy for all of them.

Similarly, hedonic adaptation is responsible for a massive amount of the tragedy of the commons games in real life, like climate change. One particularly insidious example is material possession and status.

Our social environment plays a massive influence on our behavior. The degree of positivity or negativity derived from an experience depends on not only our standing but our standing relative to those in our social environment, physical or digital. Many students, whether they want to admit it or not, are motivated to attain higher possessions relative to others. However, because of hedonic adaptation, the reference point for what is considered standard keeps increasing as people reach higher levels of possession or status in an environment. This makes everyone worse off because nobody can ever feel satisfied at the point they are at!

There is always someone higher than them in the social order.

In effect, hedonic adaptation creates a tragedy of the commons by making many people constantly strive for more possession and status over others in their social environment. But attaining these things just raises people's social reference point, making them unsatisfied again. This conclusion is backed up by the Easterlin Paradox, which describes the observation that national happiness levels remain constant across time despite rising income levels (Easterlin, 1974) (Luhmann and Intelisano, p. 5).

It Makes Us Horrible At Predicting What Will Make Us Happy In The Future

One particularly famous example of hedonic adaptation comes from a study by Kahneman and Schkade (1998).

In the study, they assessed how people in the Midwest and South of the U.S. believed their happiness would change if they moved to California. There seemed to be a stereotyped perception that people are happier in California because of the incredible weather. Nevertheless, contrary to the intuitions of the respondents, the advantages of living in California didn't reflect in the self-reported life satisfaction of those living there. Californians had hedonically adapted to the weather to the point where they didn't notice it anymore.

Kahneman and Schkade concluded that when evaluating how a future event will effect us we focus on changes not on states.

For example, say we are asked to evaluate how failing a test will affect us after a couple of days.

We will likely overestimate how negatively we will feel about failing the test. This is because we focus on the change in our mood after learning about failing the test. We ignore all the things that will happen in those two days after failing the test, which will take our mind off it. We suffer from the focusing illusion; everything seems more important when thinking about it (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984).

This has an important implication.

When evaluating how something will affect us in the future, we are likely to overvalue the changes we focus on over information we aren't aware of.

We focus only on what we know rather than considering everything we don't. Without realizing this, we might make horrible decisions for our future selves. We might falsely believe a change in our lives will make us happy or avoid a negative change because it will make us sad, not considering that hedonic adaptation will likely make the change null over time.

If you want to learn more about how our memories of the past our false, our perceptions of the present are skewed, and our imaginations of the future are wrong, check out my book summary on Stumbling On Happiness by Daniele Gilbert.

Three Causes of Hedonic Adaptation

Now that we know the effects of hedonic adaptation, we will explore the causes, which will help us understand how we can fight off hedonic adaptation.

There are three main causes of hedonic adaptation:

  • Desire is a much stronger motivator than possession
  • Our judgement of an event depends on our reference point
  • We crave novelty

Desire Is A Much Stronger Motivator Than Possession

Firstly, desire is a much stronger motivator than possession.

We have evolved to be more motivated by desire than possession. Our ancestors that desired more, even after possessing something were more likely to survive. If we were satisfied with just possessing, we would never have hunted for excess food to prepare for the winter.

So evolution hardwired us always to want more through hedonic adaptation.

In effect, even in the modern era where industrialized nations have satisfied deficiency desires like food, sex, water, and shelter, we still crave more possessions.

As Anna Lembke explains in Dopamine Nation, "three factors work together to create a dangerous cycle of overindulgence: Your brain is fine-tuned to keep consuming pleasurable goods—and now you have an abundance of these goods and plenty of time to consume them. Lembke asserts that rising overconsumption is behind a well-documented decrease in happiness among industrialized nations, and she highlights the rise in addiction-related deaths in all age groups between 1990 and 2017."

Our desires are literally and figuratively killing us.

Our Judgement Of An Event Depends On Our Reference Point

Secondly, our judgment of an event depends on our reference point.

If we usually eat dessert after dinner and don't get dessert, we will likely not feel good. Our reference point is we get dessert after we eat dinner. And we didn't get to have dessert. So not having dessert fell under our reference point, and therefore, we felt bad.

This is the main way through which hedonic adaptation keeps us wanting more.

Anytime we experience a positive or negative thing in our life, it influences our reference point for that situation. In effect, all our subsequent actions get made with an altered reference point.

One example of this relevant to school is the Big Fish Little Pond Effect.

The Big Fish Little Pond Effect is the phenomenon in which high academic-standing students have lower self-esteem in high-achieving environments compared to similarly high-academic-standing students in lower-achieving academic environments. This is because We tend to socially compare ourselves to those in our immediate environment even when objective metrics are available. When high academic standing students go to a high-achieving environment, their reference point changes, and they feel stupid.

This is what happened to me at Cornell.

Studying at Hamilton Central School in New York, I thought I was the crap among my class of 50.

But as soon as I came to Cornell, I was suddenly one of the dumber students. This isn't because my intelligence changed--although maybe the amount of peanut butter I eat slightly lowered it. Instead, it's because my reference point for what was considered smart and dumb changed. This motivated me to work harder and study smarter, more so than when I was in Hamilton.

We Crave Novelty

Third and finally, we crave novelty.

We are evolutionarily hardwired to crave novelty because novel things are things we can learn from. When we learn, we are more likely to avoid negative things that could kill us. When we avoid negative things that could kill us, we spread our genes, giving our offspring the tendency to crave novelty.

This is why boredom is one of the biggest human motivators.

When we are bored, it's our brain's way of telling us, "go ahead, do something novel."

Hedonic adaptation makes novel things, over time, normal. This, in turn, makes us search for new novel things in the environment. That's why things that previously brought tons of pleasure and joy usually bring less pleasure and joy over time.

These three things, desire is more powerful than possession, we make judgments based on reference points, and we crave novelty, help explain why hedonic adaptation occurs.

How Can We Overcome Hedonic Adaptation?

Now that we understand the effects of hedonic adaptation and what causes it, we can learn to fight it off.

I hope to show you that we aren't doomed to be forever dissatisfied with what we have.

After doing some research, here are my best tips for fighting hedonic adaptation:

  • Step Off The Hedonic Treadmill
  • Add Novelty And Variety Into Your Life Using The Five Tools Of Hedonic Design
  • Do A Hedonic Reset
  • Prioritize Memories Over Possessions Or Status
  • Practice Gratitude
  • Enjoy The Small Things

Step Off The Hedonic Treadmill

The best tip I can give to fight hedonic adaptation is simply stepping off the hedonic treadmill.

Stop believing reaching a certain milestone or external thing will make you whole.

Relax your attachment to external possessions and goals. This does not mean you stop pursuing things or don't take joy in possesions. Having no goals, friends, security, home, food, or water isn't going to help your well-being either. The difference comes with pursuing things without the expectation it will make you whole.

Pursue things because you want to pursue them for their sake in itself.

For example, one of the worst cases of hedonic adaptation I have ever experienced is with my content creation on YouTube.

When I first started out, I found intense joy in seeing just four views on a video. But as time passed and my channel grew, my reference point for what I considered "good views" increased. I started to only enjoy it when I got 10 views, 100 views, and then 300. At each level of viewership, I hedonically adapted and wanted more. Only when I recognized I would always adapt and want more viewers, did I step off the treadmill and release my attachment to my viewership.

I stopped running in place, getting nowhere.

It's important to note that this doesn't mean I stopped caring about my viewership.

I need to care. Views give me a lot of feedback about the reception of the video. I can't always feel positive about a video I release. But it does mean I released the false belief reaching that the next viewership milestone will finally make me feel whole.

Once I relaxed my attachment to the outcome, and the achievement of the goal, I could finally enjoy the journey.

The journey is way more important than the destination because the journey is all there is. Once we reach a milestone, we feel good for five seconds. Then we create another milestone.

So learning to enjoy the journey, and the process of striving towards our goals, is the true key to enjoying life.

Add Novelty And Variety Into Your Life Using The Five Tools Of Hedonic Design

One of the main causes of hedonic adaptation is we acclimate to things in our life and crave novelty.

So one of the best ways to fight against hedonic adaptation is to add novelty and variety back into our lives using the five tools of hedonic design:

  • Add disruptors, break periods between activities that keep things fresh.
  • Add cut-offs, and ends to activities that keep them from becoming too long or dry.
  • Add variations, and slight changes to activities that make them feel different.
  • Add recyclers, bringing old things back again, like memories from travels or inside jokes with friends.
  • Add peaks and finales. We are more apt to remember the peak of an experience and the end of an experience. This suggests you should try your hardest to make a great peak and to end strong. In other words, you should always end dinner by engorging yourself on massive amounts of peanut butter and dessert. Naturally.

Do A Hedonic Reset

A hedonic reset is a period where you take a break from a high dopamine-stimulating activity so that when you return to it, you can enjoy it again.

Hedonic resets work so well because they reset and lower your brain's reference point and make previously adapted to things novel again.

As the Ancient Greek Stoic Seneca once said, "Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"

There are three steps to doing a hedonic reset:

  1. Identify your personal reset target
  2. Create a plan
  3. Do your hedonic reset

1. Identify Your Personal Reset Target

Ask questions like these:

  • What pleasure have I habituated to?
  • What used to bring me joy, but now I take it for granted?
  • What am I feeling bored of?

Examples of resets to try:

  • Bedroom comforts — pillows/cushions, even your bed or lounge — try sleeping and sitting without these. Heck, sleep in a dumpster. I would only recommend that you bring cookies so you can call yourself the Cookie Monster.
  • Types of food — chocolate, coffee, meat, wine, etc. — try removing one or try eating more simple foods or even fasting.
  • Clothes — put your favorite sweater, jeans, and jewelry aside for some time. What the heck? Wear nothing! Maybe don't do that.
  • Certain appliances — your kettle, toaster, etc. — try putting them away in a cupboard to avoid using.
  • Entertainment—disable your access to TV, Netflix, video games, etc. for some time.
  • Eating peanut butter. Yup, it's a whole category of its own.
  • Relationship resets—we've all heard the adage that absence can make the heart grow fonder. When we start to take people for granted, this is also just a simple sign of hedonic adaptation, and a reset can help! You might mutually agree to spend some time apart from your significant other/friend/loved ones .

It's important you define a reset you can reasonably undertake.

We all have tons of small addictions in our lives. Trying to attack them all at once would likely lead to frustration and us giving up. So instead of stopping video games, dessert, energy drinks, social media, and YouTube, choose one thing and go from there.

2. Create A Plan

This step involves developing a plan about how you will go about your reset.

How long will it be, what are your rules for yourself, etc?

One of the best books I have read on how to do a hedonic reset is Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke. In it she describes how you can "self bind" yourself during a hedonic reset on three dimensions:

  • Physical self-binding
  • Chronological self-binding
  • Categorical self-binding

Physical self-binding

Physical self-binding works by making it physically harder to access the addictive drug or enact the addicted behavior.

Let's run through some easy examples you can probably relate to:

  • Unplugging the TV and putting it in your closet after use
  • Banishing your game console to your garage
  • Only bring with you cash when you go out instead of Credit Cards
  • Putting your chocolate in the back of the cupboard

Chronological self-binding

Another form you can use is chronological self-binding, restricting through time limits and finish lines.

By restricting consumption to certain times of the day, week, month, or year, we narrow our window of consumption and thereby limit our use.

For example, I never drink coffee past 1:00 p.m. This is a chronological self-binding I have made for myself to help me sleep better at night.

You can do this in other ways as well. You can tell yourself you will consume only on holidays, only on weekends, never before 5:00 p.m., never before Thursdays, etc.

Categorical self-binding

The last form of self-binding works by sorting your dopamine-inducing activities into different categories, categories where you can do them and categories where you can't.

One of the ways I use this most in my life is by constricting my ability to watch YouTube. I used to be addicted to watching YouTube all the time. I watched it before school, during study halls, and before bed at night. To curb my addiction, I gave myself a rule: I could only watch YouTube if I was eating alone or walking around in nature.

By constraining the categories in which I could consume YouTube I fought against my adaptation to it and made it enjoyable to watch again.

You can apply this same technique to eating, relationships, and other areas of your life.

By utilizing a mix of physical self-binding, chronological self-binding, and categorical self-binding, you can create a hedonic reset plan that works for you.

3. Do Your Hedonic Reset

The final step is to actually do your hedonic reset.

Enact the plan you made in the last section for whatever duration you set out for yourself.

You can create a hedonic snowballing effect using these three steps to do a hedonic reset.

The more you lower your reference point, the more joy you can take from the small things in life, ultimately allowing you to take joy in just being rather than feeling alive only during small sections of the day.

You escape from the hedonic treadmill, constantly desiring more and more but never having enough.

If you want to learn more about doing a hedonic reset or dopamine fasting, as it's sometimes called, check out my video book summary on Dopamine Nation.

Prioritize Memories Over Possessions And Status

Nobody on their deathbed says "they wish they had bought more shit or gotten higher in their career ladder."

Want proof? Here are the five most common regrets of dying, according to Bronnie Ware, the Australian nurse:

  1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the lives others expected of me
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard
  3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier

Do you see "I wish I had bought more shit or gotten higher in my career in that list?"

Yet most people spend tons of their lives accumulating said shit or status. We know the reason for this is because of hedonic adaptation. By understanding why memories are so much more powerful than possessions or status, we can push people to prioritize them more in their lives.

So why are memories more valuable than possessions or status? Six reasons:

  • Memories are a bigger part of your identity than your possessions. They won't leave you as your possessions can. Lose your possessions, and you are still you, lose your memories, and you are not.
  • Your memories connect you more to people. Shared memories can be reminisced over with the other person for the rest of your life.
  • The negative effects of upward social comparison aren't as prevalent for memories compared to material goods or status. If you hear someone had a nicer hotel on their vacation and went to a festival and you didn't, you might wish that you had done that on your vacation, but you won't just trade memories. Those are your memories! However, with material goods or status, we are much more likely to feel negative envy.
  • Finally, we are in many ways defined by the narrative we create of ourselves. So we should be very motivated to learn how to create memories that make for a good narrative.
  • We don't hedonically adapt to memories. Creating new memories is an endless source of joy and adventure for us.

These reasons are why creating memories that last a lifetime is some of the most important things you can do to fight hedonic adaptation.

If you want to learn more about how to do so, check out my article Aidan's Infinite Play 32 How To Create Memories That Last A Lifetime In College: The Power Of Moments And The Art of Making Memories Book Summaries.

Practice Gratitude

I know, I know, this is one of the most cliche things to do to become happier.

But it's talked about so much for a reason. Practicing gratitude works. Essentially, gratitude is learning to reappreciate things that we have hedonically adapted to.

It doesn't take long to do it.

Every morning after my exercise, I write down 5-10 things I'm grateful for and meditate on them. Usually they are super small things like water, Cornell food, my laptop, but they can be bigger things like my girlfriend, parents, the fact that I got into Cornell, etc.

Just this small practice significantly increases my wellbeing each day.

Conclusion: Stepping Off The Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic adaptation is a universal aspect of life.

But that doesn't mean that we can't do something about it. Hopefully, by understanding the awful effects of hedonic adaptation, learning its causes, and finally getting some tips on how to fight against it, you can increase your happiness set point throughout your day.

You don't have to keep running in place on the hedonic treadmill.

All you have to do is step off.

Here's what I would like to share this week.

📸News From The Channel!

📺Latest On De YouTube - How Generative AI Like ChatGPT Is Going To Change College: ChatGPT is making students thinking more important than ever, creating a paradox of abundance, and making their unique perspective more important than ever. Learn more about how ChatGPT might change college and what you should do about it in this video.

🎙️Latest On De Podcast - E19 Bianca Pereira: How To Unveil Your Inner Researcher In PKM: Bianca Pereira is a researcher and educator and has built the Prolific Researcher community with the goal of making research easy. She helps writers think like a researcher and build their own low-friction workflow to capture, organize and grow their ideas into research-based content. In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to adopt the mindset of a researcher into your PKM workflow
  • Why you should add your unique perspective and interests to your notes
  • Why you should link together notes at the atomic level

💡My Best Insights:

📖Book - Memory Craft: Do you want to memorize vast amounts of information, in a way that's creative and fun, and allows you to grow your knowledge base over time? In The Memory Craft, Lynne Kelly reveals the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and how we can use the same techniques they used for memorization to memorize today.

🎙️Podcast - Secrets of the Massively Distributed Memory Palace With Richard Rubin: What if you could create an infinite memory? With the massively distributed memory palace technique, you can. Essentially, you connect your individual memory palaces to create a network of memory palaces. Learn how to do so in the podcast.

📺YouTube Video - Ram Dass x Alan Watts The Spiritual Pendulum:Practicing spirituality is the art of repeatedly recentering yourself as the experiencer. However, just because you manage to center yourself once doesn't mean you never have to again. Because even when you have become awareness itself, you can be brought back into clinging. Perhaps you were brought into awareness through the help of some outside force. Then you forget and return to the world of suffering. Even so, you can always remember. You can get brought back into present awareness. You must have faith you can do this on your own. Breathing alone can bring you back into pure awareness. "Every change in your energy flow, whether it's agitation of the mind or shifts in the heart, will be what reminds you that you are back there noticing." - Michael A. Singer from The Untethered Soul.

If you liked this newsletter post, sign up to Aidan's Infinite Play to get a newsletter every Sunday on:

  • A personal essay targeted towards college students in the realm of gamification, relationship psychology, or Obsidian Personal Knowledge Management
  • A curated list of everything that has come out on my content channels
  • A curated list of my coolest learnings over the past week

In addition, consider checking out my digital notetaking course Obsidian University to help students like you build a notetaking system that compounds your school learning across semesters.