The human ability to quickly become used to dynamically changing surrounding conditions, which is known as Hedonic adaptation, is extremely useful in the evolutionary sense. It makes us resilient to adversity. On the other hand, it can easily rob us of enjoying the positive experiences.
Here is how Hedonic adaptation works, step-by-step, in the case of enjoying (or not) an academic sabbatical:
- My last class is over. I have no teaching or administrative commitments for the entire year. I can chose exactly what I will work on every day. It’s positively fantastic!
- Things get even better: I travel to Milan, together with my family, for the second half of the sabbatical. “Wow, six-months in Italy! Sounds like something straight out of a romantic novel!”, says an acquaintance, and I agree. Milan is a beautiful city. There is a lot see and do in addition to all the exciting work I get to do with my Italian colleagues.
- After a couple of months, things get better still: We discover more places to see and things to do, as we explore Milan and its surroundings.
- And here comes the catch: the sabbatical itself, the freedom to do whatever I wanted every day that initially excited me so much, is not so exciting anymore. It becomes an expectation, something that is taken for granted. What is enjoyable now are all the things that are bundled on top of the sabbatical: delicious Italian food, museums, La Scala, the lakes, the mountains,..
I notice that Hedonic adaptation happens with nearly everything that we do. It is particularly devastating when accomplishment comes into play, when achieving a certain result becomes the expectation.
I watch my five-years-old daughter learning to draw, and I see the tremendous excitement of just being able to express herself on paper: “I can draw anything I want! And I can use whatever colours I want, because it is my drawing!” Then, at some point as we mature, we learn too draw better: “Great! Now, not only I can draw whatever I want, but I can draw it in a way that it actually looks like the object I wanted to draw!” Then, things get better yet: “I can draw things in a way that other people like them! (I must really be an artist now!!)” And here is the trap: it’s no longer the drawing itself that is enjoyable, but the external approval that comes with it…
So, what do we do? Is the trap of Hedonic adaptation unavoidable?
Perhaps, some people are in more danger of falling into it than others. It is easy to become used to a nice environment, develop expensive or extravagant tastes, become addicted to approval… I think that our ability to resist Hedonic adaptation comes down to awareness. In any case, appreciating our current life situation, whatever it happens to be on the absolute scale of “niceness”, and being conscious about the effects of Hedonic adaptation is a healthy practice.