I was taking an open course through Yale University (free) and the professor talked a lot about hedonic adaptation. Basically this is the reason why that exciting purchase doesn’t seem as exciting as it once did or one of the reasons why your spouse might not be as interesting as you once thought.
Hedonic adaptation “is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events.” (Wikipedia). I’m just going to talk about the positive events in this post.
We get used to things, whether it’s a thing or a person. If that thing or person stays the same or at least doesn’t get any better than it originally was, it or they lose that new car smell, so to speak. Constant contact with an item or person over a period of time makes the experience no longer novel or new so we get bored and seek out something newer or different to try and get that initial high of happiness back. It’s like getting used to a smell. Something might smell strange when you walk into a room, but after awhile you may not be able to smell it anymore because you’ve grown accustomed to that scent.
Not being aware of hedonic adaptation often leads to people buying things they think will increase their happiness, but in reality that increase won’t last. It may also lead to being unfaithful or ending a relationship, thinking that while your current partner makes you happy, someone else may make you even happier, make you feel like you did early in your current relationship (early attraction also releases lots of feel-good hormones, which don’t last either).
So what do we do about this? If you’re looking for that boost of happiness that will stick around longer there are things you can try other than making major purchases or finding a new partner.
Researcher Martin Seligman found that when we engage in activities that we really enjoy such as a hobby or sport, we get into “flow” and we can do that consistently without that increase in happiness waning. Helping others can also bring a satisfaction that will increase our happiness without hedonic adaptation occurring, as can having some kind of gratitude practice. Doing a variety of these things can be very beneficial, and doing them with your partner may help to keep your relationship feeling fresher than it might otherwise have.
In a rut? Feeling bored? Figure out what activities really make you happy and do them, with someone else if possible. Be grateful. Look for little things that may bring a smile.
For more on hedonic adaption, including ideas for things to do to avoid / overcome it, see this article from Elizabeth Scott.