Gratitude, Podcasts

Hedonic Adaptation + Gratitude

On my walk the other night I fired up an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, with Shankar Vadantam. I hadn’t listened to this one in a while, and the episode’s title “Where Happiness Hides” caught my eye. Obviously, I’m a total social science/ psychology geek….LOVE that kind of stuff and I find it really fascinating.

Anyway, in the episode he interviews psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky about happiness. I really enjoyed the interview and especially the interviewee’s laidback style. She seemed like someone I’d love to sit and have a conversation with. 🙂

In one part, she discussed the concept of hedonic adaptation. This is a very well known theory, so it wasn’t earth shattering knowledge to me, exactly. But I always find the idea of hedonic adaptation to be just so TRUE! I love hearing about it, because it’s just such a great reminder that it exists.

In case you aren’t familiar, basically, hedonic adaptation means that we get used to whatever is around us (positive OR negative), and pretty quickly return to our sort of “baseline” level of happiness. Meaning, getting what we thought we always wanted doesn’t end up truly affecting our overall happiness as much as we might think it would.

Here’s a little clip about it (Sonja Lyubomirsky speaking):

Hedonic Adaptation:

There are two aspects of hedonic adaptation that are really important.

When we get the job that we want, when we get more money, have a new relationship that we really like…what happens after those positive changes is that first our expectations or aspirations change. So now when we live in the bigger house, that becomes our new normal…so then we think, well, maybe an extra bedroom would be even nicer, or hmm, maybe a deck would be nicer!

I certainly have friends who are constantly talking about improving their houses even though their houses are perfectly beautiful and enormous. And another thing that happens is that our social comparisons change, so when we move into that bigger house in the new neighborhood, suddenly we notice our neighbors have houses that might be  even nicer than ours, or they drive cars that are nicer than ours…so our social comparisons change, which also leads to kind of wanting even more.

The bottom line is that hedonic adaptation leads us to want even more than we have, so we’re never quite satisfied.

Shankar then replies about the idea of being on a “hedonic treadmill”:

“And the idea of the “treadmill” is that you’re walking, but if feels like you’re staying in place. In fact you’ve “moved up” in the world, but emotionally it feels like you are where you used to be.”

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I especially liked the part toward the end where Sonia discusses how GRATITUDE can be key in combating hedonic adaptation.

Shankar asks: “Psychologists have talked about the importance of what they call a “gratitude practice”. Is it possible that in some ways a gratitude practice can be a defense against hedonic adaptation?

Sonia replies: “Exactly. I think of gratitude as the perfect antidote to hedonic adaptation. When you think about hedonic adaptation, when you’ve adapted to something positive in your life, that means that you have essentially taken it for granted. And when you try to be grateful for the things in your life, whether it’s your health, or your opportunities, or your job, or your family, you’re basically trying NOT to take them for granted. You’re sort of neutralizing that adaptation, And that can happen in lots of different domains, whether you’re talking about your job or your family or past experiences.”

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Yep!! After going on I think 4 years now with a daily gratitude practice, I can honestly say that just intentionally THINKING about what you’re grateful for each day really does help to keep some of those “adaptations” in the front of your mind. Doesn’t mean life is always rosy and perfect (or immune to the hedonic treadmill), but at the very least, I do think it helps me to be a bit more aware and appreciate things maybe a little bit more than the average person. 🙂

Daily Gratitude:

I am grateful for electricity!! We had a brief power outage yesterday morning right before school for about 20 minutes during breakfast time. We are so used to constant, uninterrupted power in this country that we were almost OFFENDED by the fact that we (gasp) didn’t have power for a little bit. Hahaha! But hey, it gave me the chance to remind the boys that in many places, electricity is not a given like it generally is for us, thankfully.

2 thoughts on “Hedonic Adaptation + Gratitude”

  1. We had a power outage recently, too! It was on Sunday RIGHT when I started to make dinner in the instant pot. I was also super super annoyed and worried about what in the world we would feed the boys. Luckily it was probably only out for maybe 30 minutes? We also had an outage earlier in the week during the middle of the night when we had strong winds. I was pretty cranky about that, too, because the boys were already up a lot and I think the power outage cutting out the white noise resulted in Will waking up an extra time. So yes, reliable electricity is definitely something to be grateful for. Which reminds me of my time visiting my friend in the Dominican Republic when she was in the peace corp. The power would go out all the time there! And she actually lived in the mountains where there was no electricity! So that trip really made me appreciate all the things I take for granted here in the US!!

    I feel like certain personality types are less susceptible to hedonic adaptation. But I haven’t read much about it. I feel like people who are extremely logical/practical and not swayed by what others are doing and focus on their own goals are maybe less susceptible to it? When I hear about people buying fancy cars or building or moving into expensive/huge homes I just think, “good for you, not for me.” But my husband and I are both super frugal so I think that removes some of the natural tendency to want a better car, bigger house, etc etc. I am sure there are other ways we are susceptible to it, though. Like I think about the different phases of babies/toddlers and how you can get kind of trapped in thinking “I’m so tired” so I try to remember that sleep was worse X months ago or more tantrums were happening X weeks ago. If you don’t push yourself to think about how their stage of childhood has changed, you can kind of ignore the progress they are making, if that makes any sense? Like I enjoy Will SO MUCH MORE right now than I did at say 3 or 4 months. He’s so happy and easy going and it’s so nice to plop him down on a blanket with toys and know that he’ll be able to entertain himself. We just need to get through this phase of constant illness (we’ve had the stomach flu, pink eye, and horrible colds in the last 4 weeks!). So that’s a reminder to be thankful for good health when we are all healthy again!


  2. so true! during the pandemic, every turn made us appreciate before-turn life, and then once it’s over, we adjust and ask for more to be “happy” until the next turn. I think practicing gratitude really works, although I am still not consistent. should I do in the morning or night? can’t decide! 🙂


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