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How Hedonic Adaptation Can Raise Your Level of Happiness

Have you ever noticed that some people are unhappy all the time? No matter what, they find a reason to be negative. They’re the people who write one-star reviews of national parks (“The Grand Canyon didn’t have air conditioning!”) and just aren’t much fun to be around.

Similarly, some people seem incredibly resilient. Even when the circumstances cause most of us to feel discouraged or upset, these people always find the silver lining.

These examples, the constantly happy or unhappy person, are the extremes. Most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum in between—and for the most part, we don’t shift too much.

There’s a concept in the social sciences called hedonic adaptation. It basically means that most people have a relative baseline level of happiness that they tend to revert to.

The interesting thing is that major life events tend to not change this baseline, at least fundamentally.

A new relationship or major promotion gives it a boost for a while, and a major trauma or significant loss lowers it for a while, but over time we tend to return to a baseline.

One of the most telling examples of hedonic adaptation comes from a classic study of lottery winners. It turns out that if you look at people who’ve won hundreds of millions of dollars, just a few months after winning they have roughly the same happiness level as they did before cashing in. Hedonic adaptation is a powerful force!

Why is this relevant? First, it shows you that outside circumstances are not nearly as important to your wellbeing as you think. We tend to attribute more importance to those things—which, after all, are outside our control—and less importance to self-development and understanding how we can make better decisions (which is at least somewhat within our control).

Second, it might be helpful to know that sometimes you just get sad or anxious. There’s not always a reason for it, and that’s okay.

Best of all, even though each of us has a happiness baseline of sorts, understanding this fact can help you raise yours.

That’s a bold statement, but I’m pretty sure it’s been true for me. (And if you really believe something about your own happiness, then it is true. Whether it’s placebo or perception, it’s still real enough for the person experiencing it.)

I know that I have a baseline level of happiness/unhappiness.

I know that sometimes I will get sad or anxious.

Once you’re aware that you have a baseline level of happiness—and that sometimes you’ll be sad or anxious—you can work proactively on elevating your baseline.

How? Start by identifying the activities and habits that bring you joy and contentment.

These might be small, everyday actions like reading, spending time outside, or whatever else you enjoy. It could also involve larger goals like pursuing a lifelong quest or making meaningful connections with others.

The key is to integrate these activities into your routine. Regularly engaging in actions that uplift you can gradually shift your happiness baseline upwards. It’s like exercise—the more you make it a habit, the stronger you become.

Remember, this isn’t about avoiding sadness or anxiety, but about enhancing your overall wellbeing.

When you increase your happiness baseline, you’re not just temporarily happier—you’re building a foundation that makes you more resilient to life’s ups and downs.

How might your life change by raising your happiness baseline?