Filling Your Glass and Fighting Hedonic Adaptation

There’s a concept called hedonic adaptation, which says that we quickly adjust to any increased level of comfort or luxury and cease to appreciate it. Anything good that happens to us becomes our new normal, and we look higher up the ladder, not realizing that we’ll quickly adjust to those rungs as well.

The trick, then, is to suppress your hedonic adaptation, while still climbing up that ladder. If you can manage to do that, you can fully appreciate everything you already have, and future accomplishments, acquisitions, etc., will also be fully appreciated.

I don’t know if it’s fully possible to suppress hedonic adaptation. There’s some evidence that zen monks who meditate all the time can do it to a large degree. Even if we’re not going to spend all day meditating and will never fully get rid of it, though, we can easily move in that direction.

One strategy I use is to occasionally ask myself, “What’s amazing in my life?” For one reason or another, this tends to happen when I’m en route somewhere, either on the subway, walking, or on my motorcycle.

Last week I was rounding the corner on my way from Chipotle to the subway and I asked myself the question. The first thing that I thought of was that my friends and I bought an island. I probably looked like a crazy person, because I just started laughing. It occurred to me that not only do I own an island with some of my best friends, but it’s also become normal. By thinking about that, I was able to flip hedonic adaptation on its head, deriving joy from the actual good thing in my life, as well as the fact that it has become normal. What a life!

Even bad things can be the source of joy. A long time ago I lost a huge amount of money, essentially everything I had saved up through years of professional gambling. Surprisingly, though, it made me happier. I thought about how amazing it was that I could lose such a huge amount of money and still have a good life. It put everything in perspective.

Those two examples are extreme, but gratitude can come from nothing. Last week I was riding my motorcycle over a hill and I could see San Francisco unfold in front of me, the sunset tinting everything orange. Wow, I thought, how amazing is it just to be alive! Looking at all of the people and cars and buildings that we as a species have built filled me with awe and appreciation. It made me remember that islands and managing losing money notwithstanding, just being alive is such an amazing thing. Just being able to live on this earth is so great that all of our glasses should be all the way full all the time.

All of this is the secret to why I’m happy all the time. If you’re not happy all the time, it’s the key to changing that. I know that I have it easy, but I also know people who have had a really rough time who are always happy. One of my good friends had both parents die and she almost died of cancer herself, and she’s one of the happiest people I know. So don’t let bad things empty your glass– remember that we all have enough amazing things in our lives for our glasses to be at least half full, if not completely full.


Photo is some longjingcha in Hangzhou. Great tea, but incredibly annoying way to have it served.

If you’re in San Francisco, come hang out at the reader meetup this Sunday. Details here.

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