Hedonic adaptation: Why buying more won’t make you happy

A Sunday New York Times discussing the happiness benefits associated with simple living in its article titled “But Will It Make You Happy?” The main point of the article is that people can easily adapt to living with less, without suffering many negative consequences, but that when we are constantly pursuing more, we have to get even more to stay happy:

Another reason that scholars contend that experiences provide a bigger pop than things is that they can’t be absorbed in one gulp — it takes more time to adapt to them and engage with them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on that shiny flat-screen TV.

“We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,” says Professor Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.

Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.

“We stop getting pleasure from it,” she says.

And then, of course, we buy new things.

The phrase “hedonic adaptation” was made popular by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein in chapter 16 of Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (the article begins on page 302). Much of their research focuses on prison inmates becoming comfortable in their confined prison cells — a process that surprisingly occurs quickly — but it also looks at the growth side, when people acquire new and larger things:

Although hedonic adaptation confers enormous benefits by reducing the subjective effects of adverse conditions, it has associated costs as well. The most obvious cost of hedonic adaption is that it occurs for goods as well as bads, creating what Brickman and Campbell (1971) have called the “hedonic treadmill” — the tendency for transitory satisfactions to eventually give way to indifference or even dissatisfaction. Scitovsky (1976) comments that “the attainment of a goal seems, when the moment of triumph is over, almost like a let-down” (62). Adaption to pleasurable experiences may also be responsible for destructive addictions, which are due in part to the decreasing pleasure from a given level of a good or activity and in part to the displeasure (craving) when consumption of the good or activity ceases (see, for example, Koob et al. 1989; Loewenstein 1996).

In short, if you are constantly in pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses and conspicuously buying, you’re more likely to become addicted to shopping and feel less pleasure and happiness each time you buy. Conversely, reducing your consumption, living more simply, and focusing instead on experiences will ultimately — as this research shows — make you happier.

What also exists in this research is an explanation for why it is difficult to see your clutter the more you have. You adapt to your cluttered surroundings and become immune to its presence. (Hoarders, for example, are often in denial that they’re hoarders because they don’t see the mess.) In the text, researchers Frederick and Loewenstein liken it to how your nose becomes numb to foul odors the longer you stay in a stinky environment.

Thanks to reader Tim for bringing the New York Times article to our attention.

22 Comments for “Hedonic adaptation: Why buying more won’t make you happy”

  1. posted by Mario on

    I hada funny experience with that.

    5 years ago I was in the most greedy stage of my life. I was just a intern at a multinational company and always were thinking about grow financially. I used to walk in shopping centers to “raise my greed” and work harder to get those.

    Fast forward to 2 years ago, when I got personal problems, gave a little of my career and took again some old passions of mine. Today, walk in a mall is boring as hell, even I got back to work.

    It’s not exactly as I would like to, but it’s being possible to work, hang around with people I like, and practice the arts I love so much.

    But I missed travelling, though, in my personal recession time.

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    Have you ever watched a typical kid at their own birthday party? They rip open piles of gifts in 15 minutes flat – just tossing gift after gift off to the side without much of a glance at all. I wonder how long the child actually “enjoys” the gift later on – how long do they really play with the object before it ends up in a gigantic pile with all of the other toys…

    I know not every child reacts in this way, but I have seen many examples of this – blazing through brand new toys in the blink of an eye only to end up acting uninterested and longing for more stuff.

    From a very young age, I have tried to encourage my son to notice the joy of going to interesting places and to treasure happy family times together rather than focusing on the short-lived excitement of plastic and batteries. I’m not saying my son has no toys in his life because he does, but I have always tried to show him the life-long joy of the experience/activity rather than an object.

    Thank you for this interesting post today!

  3. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    One of the points I liked in the article was how the anticipation of something new was a huge part of the enjoyment of it, so plan your purchases and savor that process. They also point out that while travel may not actually be a bed of roses while you are doing it, when you look back on it, you edit it all into a rosy glow.
    So looking forward to buying things (and presumably traveling) and looking back on traveling = good. Looking back on things you bought= not so good.

  4. posted by Kari on

    Really interesting article. Of course, it is possible that “things” can also be experiences. For example, my husband and I are old house freaks and one of our goals in life was to own a early 20th century bungalow with the works (original woodwork and built-ins, etc.). When we moved to our current location we were able to buy a Milwaukee bungalow that was “unmessed with”–original finish woodwork, gorgeous floors, leaded glass, even a bank of original cabinets in the kitchen.We have been here going on 8 years and not a day goes by when we don;t enjoy the house–the beauty of the wood glowing in the sun, the beautiful windows, etc. Every day living here is an experience for us and we truly enjoy it every day.

  5. posted by mydivabydesign - The Diva's Home on

    Really great post! It is so true that constant shopping makes you immune to the fun it can be. I am in the process of breaking that habit and am finding that it can be just as fun getting rid of things as buying them. i tries the yard sale thing, but it is too hot here! (south Tx) I am now giving all my extra stuff to the Salvation Army. I am enjoying how clean my house is becoming even more than having ‘stuff’! Plus, clutter=stuck energy. Time to move on! 🙂

  6. posted by momofthree on

    At first glance of the headline, all I could think of was the old saying:

    Money can’t buy happiness

    now back to read the article

  7. posted by DJ on

    Love this… I’ve long been a fan of simplifying and downsizing possessions. I’ve noticed when working with friends who asked me to help them organize their homes that initially they are freaked by my strong insistence that they purge some stuff.

    But after we get started and they get used to it, they get really excited by letting things go away. They can see how too much stuff can be very oppressive.

  8. posted by JuliB on

    I read an article on another blog (moneysavingmom perhaps?) about a woman who was upset because her mother-in-law insisted in on giving her kids gifts. The woman had asked her own mother to give experiences instead, and she went along with it.

    I discussed the matter with my sister and she liked the idea for her 3 sons.

  9. posted by Brian on

    I wonder if this process also works in reverse. About two years ago I began to “downsize” my life. Eventually I sold a luxury car that I’d always felt compelled to keep tip-top. Selling it was a huge rush, and I felt immediately liberated. But I wonder, has my happiness level adapted to my new unencumbered state? Am I any happier now than I would have been had I kept the car? In other words, if the hedonic treadmill means you can’t increase your long-term happiness by acquiring new things, does it also mean that you can’t increase your long-term happiness by getting rid of things? Is uncluttering just walking on the hedonic treadmill in reverse?

    The next (and admittedly much bigger step) in “downsizing” my life is to sell my house. Even though I have a good job (for now) and can afford the mortgage, just the thought of this enormous debt sometimes keeps me up at night. Also, the upkeep on a house is a drag. I want to go back to the relatively unencumbered state of renting. But aside from the financial wisdom of selling in a down market, will I be happier in two years for having gotten rid of this “burden”?

  10. posted by Tabbycat on

    I feel like I’m happier now getting rid of stuff than I ever was acquiring it. Now when I see something that peeks my interest, I think about how I don’t need to be spending money on it, where will I put it, and I will probably just want to get rid of it in a few months. Has helped me cut way down on impulse purchases. Its hard not to see stuff when you work at a big box store, and they have stuff on clearance all the time.

  11. posted by WilliamB on

    An exception that tests the rule: my 15+ yo KitchenAid standing mixer still makes me smile.

    On a more general level, I think the things we have to work hard to get, give us more pleasure for longer than the things that are easy to get.

  12. posted by ida on

    I have realized over the past year or so that I have been using shopping as a form of entertainment. I do not buy in excess, but there are so many other things I could do with that wasted time.

    I am now taking steps to curb my “consumer entertainment” with the things in life that will give me greater emotional satisfaction.

  13. posted by KT on

    Hedonism implies extreme self-indulgence.

    Now I would much rather travel than to buy a fur coat (which I would NEVER do anyway as I love critters).

    I am so glad I did all the travelling I have done as I cannot afford to now and I am also older.

    I enjoyed my cameras for the experiences they saved and loved the art form of taking photographs.

    I treasure books often for their beauty, so that I can refer to them again and really would not feel comfortable with a kindle. I also do not understand why the kindle books are not VERY inexpensive.

    But I think it is great that they are available and I’d would like to have one to use sometimes.

    I’d prefer a concert to something tangible. I saw hundreds of concerts, worked many of them and I am so glad I did.

    I’d rather go out and have a pleasant meal with friends rather than obtain some thing.

    I would treasure a car like the one mentioned above if it was something I appreciated and always wanted. I think is is great for someone to buy a real treat- something a bit “self-indulgent”.

    But I love to shop. I actually love “stuff” (ssshhhh) and while I want and need to declutter a great deal (and have been doing so) and be more selective, shopping can be a social interaction with friends, a hobby, even an art form.

    Collections can be terrifically enjoyable hobbies.

    I have no desire to live like a monk but just as things are not going to determine happiness, a lack of things is not going to do it either.

    I see my sister-in-law half-terrified of “stuff” to the point of obsession. The kids suffer.

    A few years ago I had very few possessions and I certainly was not happy nor really unhappy about it. Nor did it make me the least bit happy although I did not really find it overwhelming.

    Uncluttering or living uncluttered did not make me happy.

    I wound up with a bunch of hand-me-down clothes when I much rather would have gone out and spent some money on attractive clothes I wanted- not get something as it sorta fit and covered up my body. I did not need a lot.

    I just think that a happy medium is nice. And people’s personal values need to be taken into consideration. Like that hot car! Go for it!

    And I certainly want to get the “stuff” under control rather than have it control me. But by the same token I can enjoy stuff.

    I want to get organized! And I am getting there which involves some uncluttering.

  14. posted by pammyfay on

    WilliamB: Is it the sight of the mixer and the classic design (or great color) that make you smile? Or do you smile because it’s a tool that’s helped you create great experiences (birthday cake, muffins for a lovely Sunday brunch, etc.) with it? I’d guess that it’s both!

    And Brian’s on a very interesting track there. When I finally have the tag sale I’ve been wanting to for 2 years, and then look around at the house with a little bit less stuff in it, will that make me any happier? Did it really make me unhappy, or neither happy nor happy, with the extra clothes and decor in the house? Chances are I just never even “saw” it anymore. I doubt it’ll really “free” me of anything, but maybe others can actually find some use and beautify their homes with the items that I once thought I would use. (And of course, when I “kick,” there’ll be a little less that my next of kin will have to deal with!)

  15. posted by Lau on

    I completely agree with Brian; according to this theory, accumulating stuff won’t increase your happiness, but neither will getting rid of it.

    What you realise then though is that if you have all this stuff around that doesn’t make you happy, you might as well get rid of it..

  16. posted by Annette on

    This post sounds like we are buying things to make us feel happier. Happiness comes from within not from things outside us.

  17. posted by Asha on

    This makes me feel much better about having never bought a larger home. We are 7 years from having the mortgage paid off, and are really quite used to “cottage” living at this point.

  18. posted by Daniel on

    I bought my dream car a few years ago and after a couple years I was already looking at other competitive cars in the segment.

    I’ve been able to innoculate myself from hedonic adaptation by occasionally renting a run-of-the-mill family sedan, econobox, or even taking the bus. Then I realize what I have is pretty good.

    I do the same with my watch, clothes, electronics, and other goods. Comparing myself to those who have without isn’t that noble, but it does work!

  19. posted by Sherri on

    “Buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car”

    Ida, I used to do something similar. I would buy things to make me feel better, to deal with my depression. Then I would have a huge attack of buyer’s remorse, and end up feeling worse. Plus, I’d be broke. Plus plus, I would have nowhere to store my new shinies, which led to clutter everywhere.

  20. posted by Sherri on

    Oops, hit post too soon.

    I was also going to say that I agree with KT in that a happy medium is best for me. I also love “stuff” (books and kitschy Value Village finds seem to be a particular downfall of mine), but I’m trying to curate more every day.

  21. posted by cheska on

    What I do to avoid buying toom much and to avoid clutter as well is I sell old stuff then I use the money to buy new one. So you see there’s not much cash out and was able to avoid clutter.

  22. posted by Purse Pixie on

    I admit to liking stuff but at the same time, getting rid of things does make me happy. Now, taking it to the full extent does that mean that I would be the most happy with nothing? I don’t think so but I also don’t think that that we should have things just for the sake of having things.

    As William Morris said,”Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

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