Beware the Hedonic Treadmill

Aman Manazir

For the past year, I’ve been regularly wearing contacts. At first, they were fairly uncomfortable and difficult to get used to. I’d struggle to put them in every morning, spending 20-30 minutes trying over and over again. However, after a short while, they became part of my routine. Just like brushing my teeth and showering, contacts were now part of the every day experience.

That was until last week, when I ran out of my supply. As soon as I started wearing glasses again, I realized the reverse effect had taken place. The more comfortable I felt with contacts, the less okay I was with wearing glasses.

I had grown so familiar wearing contacts that I found myself barely able to focus with glasses.

Hedonic Adaptation

This experience reminded me of the idea of hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaption is the principle that our base levels of happiness usually stay the same, regardless of our lifestyle shifts. So, if you bought a new car, you’d be happy for a short while, but eventually you’d return to the level of contentment you were at before you bought it.

This concept is usually visualized as a treadmill; people make purchases and changes as an attempt to make themselves happier, yet overtime they simply return to the same level. You put in more effort, yet you stay at the same spot.

When I first got used to my contacts, they were very exciting. I could now easily move around without having this glass and metal apparatus on my face at all times. However, that feeling of freedom quickly disappeared, which left me with contacts as the new norm. I had quickly hedonically adapted to contacts, leaving me no happier than I was with glasses.

The Era of Upgrades

Hedonic adaptation takes place with every change in your life; however, I’ve found that it affects me more when I make incremental upgrades, rather than purchasing items in entirely new spheres or making huge jumps.

Do you remember how you felt the first time you received a cell phone? You probably were ecstatic. You finally unlocked this whole new mobile experience, where you have the ability to stay connected anywhere you go.

Did it feel the same way the last time you upgraded your phone? Probably not. Upgrades are more subject to hedonic adaptation. When you purchase incremental improvements, you feel happy for a fairly short period of time and then you return to your base state.

The Best Purchases

Because hedonic adaptation exists everywhere, we must be aware of it when we make purchases. If you want to be happier for longer, make purchases that help you enter entirely new spaces and do new things.

For example, instead of buying a new iPhone, buy an iPad, or a Laptop, or something else that unlocks a whole new territory of experience. This way, you’ll be able to do many things that you could never do before, rather than marginally increasing the pleasure of stuff that you’ve been doing for years.

If you want to upgrade a current device, wait for several years to do so. It’s better to make larger, more drastic shifts rather than upgrading frequently, because you’ll actually notice the difference for longer if you wait.

Whenever you make purchases, think of the hedonic treadmill, and adjust accordingly.

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