It's called hedonic adaptation syndrome and it's meant to protect us -- but there are ways around its negative side effects.
The day after Thanksgiving, I woke up with a raging headache and a very angry stomach. Having already promised my mom the night before that I would work out with her, I grudgingly kept my promise. But y’all, I was on the struggle bus for every single second of that workout.
I know what you’re thinking — duh Calah, it was Thanksgiving and everyone overeats on Thanksgiving, stop being dramatic. And I can’t tell you how much I wish you were right, because yes. Everyone overeats on Thanksgiving. But not everyone makes a triple batch of bourbon balls for dessert and then proceeds to eat exactly 26 of them, in addition to overeating.
Apparently I took “go big or go home” a little too seriously this Thanksgiving, and I paid a heavy price. I’m not just talking about the hideous way I felt the day after — I’m talking about the fact that a week later, the mere thought of bourbon balls still makes me faintly nauseous. In one fell swoop, I managed to ruin my enjoyment of my absolute favorite holiday dessert by overindulging and triggering a severe case of what Medium refers to as “hedonic adaptation”:
Researchers believe hedonic adaptation is a protective mechanism, preventing external stimuli from having too great an impact on our internal state — kind of like the happiness equivalent of sweating to keep cool. Some have even called it a “psychological immune system,” since adaptation is how we bounce back from whatever life throws at us. But it’s often detrimental instead, sometimes to the point of making us question the choices we’ve made in the pursuit of happiness: Maybe I married the wrong person. Perhaps this isn’t the right career for me. I’ll try a different flavor next time. And self-doubt aside, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down the treadmill at those moments of joy and linger in them a little longer? Too much of a good thing, Jordi Quoidbach (a psychology professor at the University Pompeu Fabra in Spain) has found, can have a dulling effect. If you keep chocolate on hand all the time, it doesn’t really feel like a treat anymore. If you and your spouse both work from home, you may see too much of each other and never have that “excited to see you again” feeling. One of Quoidbach’s studies found that just feeling well-traveled, regardless of actual experience, can make people less interested in spending time at a given tourist destination. Spacing out your pleasures can make each one that much more potent.
Of course, my bourbon-ball-binge is an extreme example of indulgence triggering hedonic adaptation — in my case, it’s definitely a healthy response to prevent me from a repeat performance. But hedonic adaptation has a way of dulling our appreciation for everyday sources of joy as well. Take the endless days of sunshine that I took for granted during the many years I lived in Florida … I used to complain bitterly every single winter that I was sick of the sun and warmth, and missed cold nights and cozy fires.
I have the distinct pleasure of eating my words every single day now, wishing I could go back and kick my past self for taking all that sunshine and pleasant weather for granted. But I have learned enough from that experience to savor the days of sunshine — today, for example, it’s sunny and 70 for the first time in weeks. So I’m writing this outside, soaking up every bit of sunshine and warmth the day has to offer. And the truth is that I appreciate it so much more right now, as an unexpected treat, than I did during the dog days of August.
Of course, we can’t use abstinence as a way to increase our enjoyment of everything in life — I can’t, for example, take a few weeks off work just so I can enjoy my job more fully when I come back. But what I can do is remember all the things I love about my job when the details start getting overwhelming. I can imagine all the other things I could have done to make money, and remind myself that the work that seems dull in the moment is still the most fun, exciting, and rewarding work I could have found.
Even imaginary abstinence is an effective way to curb hedonic adaptation and remind us of the joy we take in our everyday lives. And when it comes to occasional treats, hedonic adaptation is an incredibly effective way to remind us that temperance is a virtue for a reason — and that treats should be occasional (and limited) for our own good.