Published:  11/10/2023

In a previous post, I wrote about how humans have a powerful ability to adapt to their circumstances. This ability to adapt is very useful when dealing with difficult situations. We tend to think it would be impossible to endure a tragedy like losing a loved one. Not only would we be able to survive such a loss, but we would likely (eventually) return to our prior level of happiness.

Unfortunately, this ability to adapt to bad situations also works in the other direction. If our situation suddenly improves dramatically (like we get a great new home or a large raise), we will not forever be happier because the new situation will eventually become our new normal. We will again settle back into our baseline level of contentment. Recall this tendency to become numb to our good fortune is referred to as hedonic adaptation.  

It would be nice if we could selectively turn off this adaptation so that we could continue to reap the happiness benefits of positive life changes. While we can’t turn off this adaptation entirely, there are some ways to fight hedonic adaptation. Two of the best ways are: 1) negative visualization and 2) gratitude.

Negative visualization was used by the ancient Stoics. The idea is straightforward. The Stoics imagined how their own life could be much worse, which helped them to be grateful for everything they were fortunate to have. For example, it is easy to take our loved ones for granted especially if we live with them, but if we imagine that it is our last day with them, we will suddenly try to be mindful of every minute with them. We will be able to appreciate how blessed we are to have this time with them.

The second approach, practicing gratitude, has been shown to improve our own day-to-day contentment with life. Practicing gratitude is a way to be mindful of the good in our lives. This helps us avoid taking our good fortune for granted. The practice is simple. You just stop and take a few minutes each day to name 2 or 3 things that you are grateful for in your life. This little reminder helps you to recognize your blessings, and it gives you a little boost of happiness. If the practice is maintained over time, it might have lasting effects on your wellbeing.

I like to write my three things in a journal because then I can look back over past days, and it helps hold me accountable. You can do that, or you can just make a habit of starting or ending your day with a quick mental list of three things you’re grateful for in life.