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What is Hedonic Adaptation and How Can it Turn You Into a Sucka?

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In writing this blog for you, Mr. Money Mustache actually has three major goals:

  1. To make you rich so you can retire early.
  2. To make you happy so you can properly enjoy your early retirement.
  3. To save the whole Human Race from destroying itself through overconsumption of its own habitat.

All three of these goals are in perfect alignment, and they mix and mingle in different ways depending on which aspect of Mustachanism we are discussing at any given time. Today we’ll be focusing in on #2: What actually makes us happy.

Now, everybody knows that I like to promote a relatively frugal lifestyle. Critics of my approach have said things like this,

“You can’t take your money with you when you die, buddy. How’d you like to die tomorrow after scrimping and saving for your whole life, never having spent your money?”

“I happen to like driving around in a nice car. There’s no way I’m going to bike to work all week and work hard every day just so I can drive around in a $5,000 shitbox on the weekends” *

“I like to buy myself something nice a few times a year. What’s the harm as long as I’m staying within my budget?”

In fact, even the relatively frugal financial blogger I call Mortgage Free Mike once wrote this comment on an earlier MMM article:

“You have a really great.. and unique… attitude about money. I’m not sure if I can regularly deny myself purchases, but at the same time tell myself that it’s a win, but it’s worth a shot!”

All of these statements would have sounded perfectly rational to me when I was just a little younger. In fact, the one breakthrough that flipped my thinking on the matter was learning about the scientific studies that have been done on hedonic adaptation.

In less fancy terms, what this term means is that “no matter what happens to you in your life, you’ll very quickly get used to it”. Hedonic Adaptation is a feature built right into your Human DNA that allows you to function efficiently in a wide variety of environments, even very harsh ones.

A most striking example of this was a 1978 psychological study that evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners, and recently injured paraplegics relative to the general population. As you’d expect, the lottery winners were pretty upbeat immediately after their win, and the paraplegics were pretty pissed off. But within just two months, both groups had returned back to the average level of happiness.

“That’s Impossible!” , I thought. “How could this be!?”

Well, it turns out that when a person jumps to a new level of material convenience, he loses the ability to enjoy the things he previously thought were pretty neat. A cold Bud Light was once a true delight after a work day for the lottery winner, but after the win he quits the job and takes up high-end scotch, poured by a personal butler. Both serve the same purpose, and the pleasure is about the same. Similarly, when moving down the hedonic scale, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we can learn to appreciate simpler things with just as much gusto as we would have appreciated more expensive things. I truly love the sound of the wheels of my bike slicing through the quiet wind on an open road, just as much as I enjoyed the whirring sound of the gear-driven camshafts and the rich tuned exhaust note of my old VFR800 motorcycle.

This happiness averaging also explains why we the people of the most materially abundant country in the world, the United States, where the gas is the cheapest and the cars are the fanciest and the houses are the biggest, are actually quite far below other less wealthy countries in the world when we evaluate our own happiness. Depending on the survey, you’ll see countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Bhutan, Mexico, Cuba, and others kicking our ass, and the US rarely ranks above #17 on the list.

It is intuitively hard to believe these things at first, when you have been raised as a consumer. My cravings for the crisply carved seats and slickety smooth gearshift of a Mini Cooper S felt very real. Just as Mrs. Money Mustache’s cravings for the artistic perfection and self confidence boost offered by the latest names in athletic fashion felt real. In fact, the cravings ARE real, and the adrenaline rush of buying these new things is real as well. They really do make you feel happy – for a very short time.

The key for me is not denying the existence of the craving or the short term rush. It’s zooming out and reminding myself, “Dude, the scientists have already figured this out for you. You can buy the Cooper, and get a short term rush, or you can put that same energy and money into doing something that creates far more lasting happiness.”

And that’s the golden nugget for you. You only have a limited lifespan, and you’ve got a real chance to go get yourself some lasting happiness. Are you going to spend that time chasing the scientifically-proven-to-be-ineffective short adrenaline rushes that you get from buying yourself some more shit? Or would you prefer to actually experience Several Golden Decades of Deluxe Life that are so good you look back and laugh at them even when you are a Skeleton?

Luckily, the wise scientists and psychologists who came before us have already done the work, and we know, in a general sense, what is most likely to make a person happy. And when it comes down to a battle between my own emotion-biased intuition, and real scientific research, I’m going to side with the scientists every time, because I always bet on the side where the odds are in my favor.

In no particular order, the biggest factors influencing human happiness include meaningful work (with lots of autonomy, low stress, and low fear of losing your job), private life, community, health, freedom, and a philosophy of life.

Pretty simple isn’t it? And you will note that the Way of the Money Mustache addresses all of these areas.

Because work is such an important part of human happiness, as a Mustachian you will work as quickly as possible to take the money component out of it, so that you can have the option of deciding like a real Adult what kind of work you want to do each day. To achieve this, you will lower your expenses and put the incredibly high level of savings that result, directly to work for you. And in the process, you won’t suffer at all, because all you’re giving up is a little bit of the Hedonic Adaptation Crack Cocaine.

By gaining financial independence, you will naturally turn more to helping others, bonding with your own family and friends and community, and you’ll have the extra time and the reduced stress levels allowing you to take better care of your health. Freedom goes without saying – here in the rich world, the only widespread form of slavery is the economic type**. Debt and an addiction to high consumption are a very real form of slavery, and gaining freedom from it is a genuine contributor to Real Happiness.

People who are already financially independent might now step in and say “Aha, but if I’ve already got the freedom and the health, then am I allowed to go out and buy myself a whole bunch of fancy shit?”.

This question becomes more complicated. I’ve pretty much been cured from the desire for a lifestyle any more luxurious than the one I already live. And I’m actually hoping to step it down gradually over time. The obvious reason to reject things like a fancier car or house is that they use up more of the planet’s natural resources that could be used to help someone else instead. On the other hand, buying more services and experiences in your own community might end up supporting younger and less wealthy people (students, actors, musicians, artists) which might do a bit of good to society and share your wealth. I like the idea of starting businesses that employ a wide variety of people and treat them unusually well. Or creating funding incentives for schools and students in such a way that they up their game significantly. It’s a tricky problem, deciding what is the most efficient use for extra money, but I’ll leave it to you to think it over when you get there.

So when you hear people who are still in the Sukka Consumer mindset, telling you that they don’t want to deprive themselves of the happiness afforded by buying things for themselves, even while they struggle with debt or unpleasant work, tell them to look into the science behind what they are saying. They’re actually like a dangerously unfit person saying they don’t want to deprive themselves of the pleasure of sitting on the couch all day and go out for a walk instead.

Science has proven they are both wrong. The sooner you can accept this convenient fact, the sooner you can become rich. And happy!

 

 * Actual closely paraphrased quote made somewhere online about an MMM article.

** Correction: years later, a reader pointed out to me that literal slavery still exists and it’s still a big problem due to Human Trafficking – even in the US. More information at the Polaris Project and there’s also a Wikipedia entry on it. (Thanks Seth!)

  • Bill March 23, 2015, 9:37 pm

    I vividly experienced hedonic adaptation on a recent trip to the Philippines. After several days of traveling around in gritty cabs, jam-packed shared vans, jeepneys (truck transports w/ bench seats), trikes (motorcycle+sidecar taxis), and habal-habal (motorcycle taxis w/ pillion riders) I spent a day with a friend who drove me around in her private car. I felt it was luxurious, fancier than a brand-new luxury sports car… even though it was a 2009 Ford Fiesta… a vehicle that, where I live, most folks would be embarrassed to own except maybe as a 3rd car for a high-school driver.

    Reply
  • buckhamman November 3, 2015, 3:47 am

    Wouldn’t early retirement and mustachanism also be subject to hedonistic adaptation?

    I mean, take your lottery example you just examined. You focused on material goods, but what other things did the lottery winners have that the paraplegics didn’t? Well, the lottery winners have achieved financial independence, while the paraplegics either have to work in a worse condition or be dependent in some other way. The lottery winners probably have, on average, better heath with the ability to use their bodies and all that. The lottery winners have great freedom, greater than mustachians, to travel the world, donate to great causes, raise their kids, ect. With few exceptions, the lottery winners have more of the desired mustachian traits that are proposed on the blog.

    However, they both describe themselves as being equally happy. Despite the fact that FI, freedom, and health has been multiple times been said to give “true” happiness (while consumer items are, of course, “fake” happiness), the group with more of each describes themselves as equally content. Would this be because they don’t grant happiness or is it that these lottery winners are tragically misinformed about their own hapiness( except in the case of consumer items, of course).

    It may be reasonable that people who spend their money on luxury cars they commute to and from their 12 hour jobs everyday are just as happy as mustachians who spend that time cycling around the park, as crazy as it seems. It all depends on what the person defines happiness as, and whether it’s a large house and watching TV or a road trip and building things, it’s still happiness, mustachian or not. You may be able to analyze which pleasurable chemicals are released in the brain in each situation, but all are short lived and self-regulating, i.e. subject to hedonistic adaptation. So, really, happiness is more of an opinion, which differs for each individual.

    This is all to say that when you say things like “x is fake, short-term pleasure and shouldn’t be sought” and “y is true, long-lasting joy that should be one of your ultimate goals” you aren’t really saying an accurate statement. All states and experiences are subject hedonistic adaptation; no matter how good you have it, in whatever way, you will get used to it. Nothing much else to say.

    Reply
    • Heath November 3, 2015, 9:56 pm

      I think you might be misconstruing what I understand to be the arguments here.

      MMM’s argument (as I understand it) is that if we’re naturally going to resolve to a Default Happiness Level after a period of adjustment, then we can chose any lifestyle with the same DHL. It then follows that NOT working for a shit ton of years in order to support a high level of consumerism could be a superior way to live, not necessarily by happiness, but in other metrics such as environmental impact, free time, worries about money, etc. If nothing but for the environmental impact itself!

      I believe also that a lottery winner vs a Mustachian, are not really equivalent other than monetarily. A lottery winner has been handed FI on a silver platter, without Healthy Levels of Effort. A Mustacian has (ostensibly) learned The Hard Way, how to survive on less, how to derive appreciation from simple pleasures (such as nature), and has done so slowly over a period of years. It may be that this, combined with practicing Stoic philosophy (another MMM favorite) over time, may allow for the adjustment of one’s DHL upward. Though I’m stretching on that one, as I’m not aware of any studies of the effects of meditation and Stoicism on DHLs.

      :-)

      Reply
      • buckhamman November 8, 2015, 12:14 am

        I supposed I should have clarified I was playing devil’s advocate here, and am not actually against mustachian principles in general, just the argument presented in this article. :)

        I don’t know, but I see some argument towards gaining “lasting happiness” in the paragraphs between the citing of the study and the quotation “Aha, but if I’ve already got the freedom and the health … “.

        He states that increased consumption of the lottery winners did not increase their happiness because they adapted to their new situation, which I agree with. He then states that, therefore, the average consumer should focus on things that create “lasting happiness”, and lists five (unsupported) traits that apparently signify just that. However, three of them (health, freedom, and meaningful work) would be greater in lottery winners than paraplegics, who are both equally happy. Given this, and his previous interpretation regarding consumption, that these things don’t actually make you happier, making his point pretty bad.

        Again, I do agree with the mustachian points in general, and I do concede that there are other characteristics that may lead people to choose avoiding consumerism, such as environmental factors. However, his argument seems to be similar to the argument:
        “People seem to be supporting eating ice-cream because it makes them happy. However, according to the this study, no food makes people any happier. Therefore, you should focus doing things that do make you happier, such as eating fruits and vegetables. These foods(ignoring his own study) make you happier, while ice-cream clearly does not.”

        Just replace “ice-cream” with consumerism, “fruits and vegetables” with health and freedom and have the study state “health, freedom, and consumerism do not improve happiness”, you get over half of the article and what seems to be his main points.

        Also, I was attempting to state that the average lottery winner has more traits present and/or desirable by mustachians that paraplegics, not that they were equivalent. Primarily, they have financial independence and better health than paraplegics, which is difficult to deny. Now, I understand mustachians have more discipline, even more health, stoicism and that satisfaction of actually achieving their financial independence. However, as far as I understand, paraplegics don’t, on average, have any more of these traits than lottery winners. I was just trying to state that various mustachian traits that are more apparent in one group of individuals than another do not appear to be improving happiness, as Mr. Money Mustache says it should.

        I am fairly unsure which mustachian principles, if any at all, promote greater happiness. However, Stoicism, the most likely candidate, does not have anything to do with consumerism or financial independence. A consumer can practice Stoiticm just as well as a mustachian. A stoic consumer probably appreciates his job, despite the hardships, and consumes a lot of material objects despite not needing to to remain happy. A stoic mustachian probably appreciates his more frugal lifestyle, despite its hardships, and leaves his job early despite not needing to do so in order to remain happy.

        Reply
      • Jan November 23, 2015, 12:02 pm

        Heath, thanks for enlightening me on this. Lottery winnings doesn’t look so good any more. You are the Mustasche!

        Reply
  • Chris December 6, 2015, 2:22 am

    I feel the need to point out that the reason a consumer attitude and materialism exists is simply because those individuals are not capable of thinking for themselves and being aware that their environment has conditioned them. I think it’s futile to expect that we can ever live in a world of frugality. The phenomenon is a result of subconscious human weakness, not conscious will.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache December 8, 2015, 11:31 am

      Ahh, but wouldn’t you say there are SOME people consciously doing the conditioning? And that other people are capable of waking up and realizing this about their own environment, if properly instructed?

      If so, it’s worth working to change it, and thus not futile at all.

      Reply
  • CJ January 13, 2016, 11:21 am

    Hey, I recently stumbled across your blog and in two days have reached this article. I live in Washington, DC and throwing everything I have a student/family/credit debt and am happy to say I’m well on my way to being debt free at age 29. I have a great job that I enjoy, am working toward SWAMI status, and am able to live within my means. I’m a bike advocate, etc, basically this all resonates.

    I’ve struggled with spending all my life due to things like abuse and low self esteem, the immediate gratification was too much to pass up for the majority of my life (hence the still existing debt). While this struggle will likely continue in some form for the rest of my life, I feel like I’ve got it under control in a way that will diminish over time.

    My purpose writing in is that I’ve stumbled on a seemingly FANTASTIC grocery opportunity, hungryharvest.net. They deliver all the produce, too ugly to be sold in grocery stores, to your door. I live alone so it’d be $15/week for the delivery–all local, and for every box they deliver to a local family in need (they have two person or larger boxes for $25). I’m gonna go ahead and let you know I’m terrible with math. TERRIBLE. I was in an experimental class for 1st grade where they gave us calculators and I still can add in my head. So I’m really looking to see if this program is as good as it seems. As someone who lives 3 blocks from a grocery and can bike anywhere in her city, I’d like to believe this is a better alternative for the following reasons:

    1. I like the idea of sharing and donating
    2. Tri colored peppers and misshapen carrots are adorable
    3. I eat mostly veggies, so I could probably condense everything else down to a grocery run every other month

    My concern is that there is transportation and delivery involved, even though these would be wasted tasty foods (how much am I helping/hurting the environment), and am I coping out by getting the delivery when I live so very close to a grocery store.

    A general week will cost me about $45 at the Safeway 3 blocks away and $60 for the same load at the Harris Teeter 5 blocks away. It seems really worthwhile…

    Thanks!

    cj

    Reply
  • Dave C February 24, 2016, 1:01 pm

    Late to reply but I just discovered something.

    I agree that Hedonic Adaptation can turn you into a sucka’, but I’ve recently discovered it can turn you into a FUCKING CHAMPION.

    Let me explain.

    I bike to work, just over 10km. But some days due to time, laziness, etc., I drive.

    When I bike, I feel invigorated and fresh when I step out of the shower and make my way to my desk. Already braved the elements and got a good workout in.

    When I drive, I feel like a donut munching sack of crap. Most of the damn commute I’m not even moving; just waiting for certain electronic bulbs to be turned off and other to be light up. I’ve arrived at work and done nothing but sit and eat all day! Where is my endorphin flow and vibrancy? I’ve already been wearing this suit for 25 minutes. This is terrible! I want my bike ride back.

    So you see, I’ve adapted to the awesomeness of biking. And now that I know what it’s like, I can’t be dragged back to the relative suckiness of driving.

    Hedonic Adaptation: Use it to your advantage.

    Reply
  • Tory May 30, 2016, 6:31 pm

    If amputees can be as happy before losing a limb as after losing a limb, I can live without _____ (fill in the blank). Which is always trivial by comparison! Why? I will be just as happy if I buy X as if I do not buy X. I will be just as happy if I eat this pound of M&Ms as if I don’t. This is a very profound thought with endless applications. I now understand that “money does not buy happiness,” a statement which had previously seemed deeply suspicious. And I now understand the term “immediate gratification,” which sounded so shaming. Really it should be called “temporary” or “ephemeral” gratification. Regardless, the disappointing revelation that consuming X will change nothing for the better nor for long, has been a huge relief. I have been relieved of wanting stuff, almost of want itself. I think Buddha called this “nirvana.”

    Reply
  • Charles May 5, 2017, 2:22 pm

    I think you’ve got it 100% right when it comes to consumer culture. But because I’m a stickler for facts, I’d like to point out that the bit about paraplegics returning to average levels of happiness is a myth. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17469954

    Life-changing disabilities really do suck. There’s a reason we keep spending money researching prosthetics and transplants instead of just letting people continue to be happy with their disability.

    Reply
  • Bill Kelly August 9, 2017, 6:49 am

    There is a really good book on this subject…’Stumbling on happiness’ by Daniel Gilbert. It not only talks about the human mind’s ability to adapt hedonistically, but also to hardships as well. I highly recommend.

    I find your site to be life changing and I hope to share many of these lessons with my kids.

    You rock!

    Reply
  • @hector.mustache August 14, 2017, 2:09 am

    Using the knowledge around Hedonic adaption is in fact powerful. The problem is, that most people cannot apply it, like reading dozens of self-help books cannot change anything. Their blind spots and their ego (based on subconscious beliefs from the past) is sabotaging them. To open the gate in your brain for radical lasting change, I discovered there is just one way: Release of deep-rooted subconscious pain and beliefs through self-centered meditation, sometimes with help of spiritual seeds.

    Reply
  • APC CArrier April 18, 2018, 10:18 am

    You are this close (1 milimeter) to becoming catholic.

    Frugality has been at the center of a good life, known since the times of Aristotle. The most important commodity you have is time: finite, non-recoverable, and non-fakable.

    The more you have, the more you need to maintain it, the more you have to work to maintain what you have. Which leads you into a spiral of immorality to sustain your lifestyle.

    It is not coincidence that the greatest saints and good men were austere and/or ascetics.

    Reply
  • Alison Darby May 18, 2018, 12:32 pm

    “The biggest factors influencing human happiness include meaningful work (with lots of autonomy, low stress, and low fear of losing your job), private life, community, health, freedom, and a philosophy of life. Pretty simple isn’t it?”

    Actually, no, it isn’t – because most people can’t attain several of those key pillars. The persistent myth that _everyone_ can have those things if they just work hard enough makes me so sad/angry – sangry? – it makes my teeth ache. I heart Mr. Money Mustache, I truly do, and Mustachianism is, in its basic ethos, commendable. But it pains me to see occluded the fact that for _many_ people, there is no way out; poverty is a poisonous Pitcher plant, and no amount of effort leads to escape.

    “[M]eaningful work (with lots of autonomy, low stress, and low fear of losing your job)”? HAHAHAHA oh sweet Mary, do you _know_ how few people get to have that? The bulk of the world right now are the precariat class. And education doesn’t protect you – there are hundreds of thousands of Master’s degree holders stuck working a $12/hr job in retail or something. No matter how frugal you are, you can’t accrue savings on wages like this, and frankly, most people are having to supplement their crappy full-time jobs with an equally crappy part-time job just to cover the bills. Rents have skyrocketed all over; employed adults are living with roommates in sub-standard housing because that’s all they can afford in an ever-booming real estate market that has only worsened the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Be frugal, you say? Move somewhere housing is more affordable? There are really only two kinds of places in the U.S. anymore: Rural areas where housing is slightly cheaper but there are no jobs, and urban area where there are jobs – that pay $8-$18/hr for the vast majority of people – but where, alas, up to 80% (!) of that salary will go just to put a roof over your head.

    Wage disparity has never been higher in human history, and, unpopular though this sentiment is, capitalism is actually bad for most people. Your hypothetical carpenter in the ’50k jobs w/o a degree’ post is very lucky – in most states, the median wage for a skilled carpenter is about $18/hr – with no benefits; tutoring in the humanities might get you $20/hr – and again, no benefits. Buying your own health insurance is awesome! And it’s not just for independent contractor types anymore, yay – almost every company in the U.S. has cut or slashed health insurance for workers to the point that it’s effectively non-existent, so healthcare becomes an out-of-pocket expense for everyone (who’s not in tech). Do you have any idea how wide the gap is between wage growth and cost of living? It’s a canyon. Wage stagnation has created a world in which the bottom 50% of workers in the U.S. are positioned in essentially this kind of ratio: Salary $28,000||Cost of Living $36,000 (EPI/NYPIRG et al). What’s the magic solution to accrue savings when your salary is already 10k+ less than what you need to simply survive?

    Bottom line, ‘gaining financial independence’ is out of reach for _a lot_ of people. They will never experience freedom, never know what it’s like to feel secure, no matter how hard they try to climb up the greased ladder of capitalism. They will grind away in their poverty-wage jobs; perhaps try to ‘better’ their plight by taking night classes, only to discover that a bachelor’s degree doesn’t open any appreciable doors for them, that it didn’t lead to better pay, as it used to. They will always stagger under the weight of debt – periodic medical, on top of the student loans for a degree that didn’t yield the promised better life – they will never own a car or a house or even good shoes. Advising your readers to consume less is great – for people who have disposable income; what about the other 30 million people, who don’t?

    Do you really think that people are poor because it’s fun, or because they just haven’t realized that we live in a world in which “showers of cash” are spraying everywhere, and being rich is as easy as positioning yourself under them with a bucket? For the love of all that is mustachey, please brush up on reality: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2014/1/23/1271896/-Republicans-believe-rich-people-just-work-harder-So-how-do-they-explain-these-statistics

    I suppose you probably won’t post this comment, but if anyone here really cares about ‘community’, the already well-to-do Mustachians should maybe think about the community at large – outside this insular awesome figuratively gated community – and of the people there who are languishing in wage slavery due to no fault, inaction, or deficit of their own. I’m not a crank, and this isn’t complaint, really. I’m just sad. I watch teachers and social workers and our clients and SO many other talented and caring and hard-working people drowning, no matter what they do. And it breaks my heart that last little un-cracked inch when I see people blithely asserting that getting rich is easy. That’s whitewash on a very ugly truth; namely, that it is literally nearly impossible – for _systemic_ reasons – for the majority of people in poverty to rise. Getting rich is the farthest thing from easy, and peddling that myth makes ‘sukkas’ of us all.

    #LongRantyUnpopularCommentIsLongRantyAndUnpopular

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache May 18, 2018, 3:35 pm

      Alison, while I can certainly respect that the sentiment behind your post comes from a warm place, it just doesn’t apply in the context of this blog. Because of two reasons:

      1) the blog is not trying to solve rich country poverty. It is trying to get the richer half of the population to consume fewer natural resources.

      2) You’ve listed a million reasons why people CAN’T be successful, and when individuals read a screed like that, they tend to believe it and lose hope. On the other hand, when they read about success and actually try something, they are much likely to succeed.

      Just one quick example: my carpenter friends don’t earn $18 per hour, they earn $50 or more, because they choose to work for themselves. They can easily afford health insurance, because it is heavily subsidized at lower incomes, or if they work so much that they have a high income, affordability is not a problem either.

      Your general perspectives about income inequality are valid, but those are things to work on at a policy level, rather than an individual blog comments level. This blog targets individuals, not governments.

      Reply

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