A few months ago I got a new car. After a few weeks of driving I discovered one of the car’s features (buried in a touchscreen menu) is to heat up the steering wheel.
I had never had the experience of a heated steering wheel. It sounds kind of ridiculous. But one chilly morning I gave it a try.
My face broke into a huge grin as I drove my daughter to school. It turns out a heated steering wheel is actually pretty nice. As advertised, the wheel heats up to a satisfying warmth, and the tighter you hold it the warmer your hands will get. When your hands are warm your whole body feels nice and cozy. It’s an extremely pleasing sensation on a frosty morning.
I kept using the heated steering wheel through the winter. But after a few weeks I stopped feeling that initial joy of using it. Ostensibly, nothing changed. My hands were still cold, the wheel was still nice and warm. But my enjoyment had returned to the baseline.
You’re probably familiar with this process in your own life, with your own stuff. You get something new, and at first it feels like a big boost to your happiness and pleasure. But in a short amount of time it becomes your new normal. You can really feel this when someone else encounters the shiny new thing for the first time.
“Wow, you have a heated steering wheel!? That’s so neat!”
“Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.”
In the 1970’s two psychologists (Brickman and Campbell) coined the term for this phenomenon — hedonic adaptation.
As a consumer, you’re prompted to want a new product or feature. The mind seizes on this thing as an addition to your life that will make you happier. You strive to get this item, and feel a brief rise in happiness. But in a depressingly short time your mind adapts to having this new thing in your life, and your happiness returns to the baseline.
This leads to an interesting question. I won’t have this car forever. I now have to live with the fact that I know about how nice a heated steering wheel is, and that every car henceforth will either need to meet this new bar of normal, or be a slight disappointment to me.
In this sense, has the heated steering wheel actually been an improvement to my quality of life? I’ve already hedonically adapted to it, so it doesn’t bring much pleasure, and I’ve now messed up my experience with plain old cold steering wheels going forwards. Perhaps when it all comes out in the wash, the heated steering wheel represents a net loss to my overall happiness.
This is the trap of comfort and pleasure. You get used to it, and the mind starts to cast about for the next thing that will raise comfort and pleasure even higher. You’re now on the hedonic treadmill, forever chasing the next shiny object. The heated steering wheel is ok, but have you seen the model with a massaging driver’s seat? (Yes this is a real thing).
There are a lot of proven methods to escape the mental tyranny of the hedonic treadmill, (And if you want to learn them take our brand new Kenzai Happy course), but one of the simplest, most useful things you can do is work on your nutrition and exercise.
Let’s start with eating better.
Have you ever had a period of particularly poor eating and drinking? When you’ve been living high on the hog, food and drink just doesn’t hit the same way. I often feel this way on a work trip or vacation when I’m eating out all the time. Within just a few meals, you don’t really care that you’re being served delicious meals and fine wines. It’s all just kind of vaguely “good” in a blunt, bland way. And after one of these periods, you can see the results in your lower energy levels and tighter waistband!
In terms of human history, a cheeseburger should be a luxurious meal, with protein, carbs, fats, and fresh vegetables all coming together in a single amazing item. But these days it's considered a boring staple.
There’s something deeply refreshing about setting aside a period in your life to make healthier food choices. All around us are cheap, plentiful, delectable treats. A king or queen of old wouldn’t be able to enjoy the wide variety of tasty dishes found in your average food court. But in the face of all that hedonic luxury, where you can eat anything you like, you reach inside yourself and find that kernel that says, “enough.”
You pass on the rich, fatty, sweet delights, and choose simpler fare. The mellow sweetness of fruit. The hearty, fibrous crunch of vegetables. The crisp non-taste of plain old water. At times you feel the pinch of hedonic loss — why are you choosing these comparatively bland foods when there are so many more exhilarating things to eat? But at the same time, it feels GOOD to step off the hedonic treadmill and get back to basics.
And the most magical part of all, when you’re eating clean, wholesome, minimally processed foods, you start to really taste things again. You can be delighted by the complex tartness of a strawberry, or the umami undertones of a red bell pepper. Your body and mind are loving taking a break from all the richness and just eating right for a change.
When a fresh fruit tastes like a delicious, luxurious treat, you know you've reconnected with your less hedonically-adapted palate.
The same process unfolds with exercise.
When you’re doing your last few minutes of jumprope, 8th kilometer of running, or fourth set of v-sits, you might find your brain thinking “why am I subjecting myself to this torture? I could be doing anything else right now. I could be in bed scrolling on my phone. I could be on the sofa watching TV. I could be on a deck chair reading a good book. Why of all things am I doing THIS!?”
Just as with rich food, you can think back to times in your life when you’ve gone all-in on a lazy lifestyle. Was it really very much fun to watch your 6th episode in a row on a TV binge? Was that 4th hour lying by the pool really all that great? The vice of sloth is one of the quickest things you hedonically adapt to. When you’re being lazy, all joy from sitting around doing nothing quickly evaporates and you find yourself feeling grumpy and depressed.
Choosing to get up and exercise is one of the most life-affirming things you can do. You’re embracing effort, discomfort, and pain (the good kind of pain) when you have every opportunity to choose idle comfort instead. Above and beyond the physical benefits, exercise gives you confidence and self-respect. Ironically, one of the most direct ways to get off the hedonic treadmill is to get on the real-life treadmill (or better yet, outside!).
You could be doing anything else, but you're choosing to take care of your mind and body. Feels so good!
I’ve observed a lot of people feel relief when they learn that there’s a term and a whole field of research into hedonic adaptation. It’s like finally learning the name of the disease which has been plaguing you for years. The problem is still there, but now at least you know what you’re dealing with.
The thing to remember about hedonic adaptation is that when you experience it, it doesn’t make you a shallow or ungrateful person. Our brains evolved in a high-risk ecosystem where survival depended on what we paid attention to. In that environment, the brains that did best were those that learned to always be on the lookout for novel stimulation, and to lower the attention given to familiar, safe things. Looking out for what was different and new presented opportunities and warned of dangers. The brain gains no benefit from freaking out over its 25th exposure to the heated steering wheel. It’s already scanning the horizon for a fresher opportunity to be comfortable and happy.
You’re not a bad person for hedonically adapting to your current lifestyle. You’re actually being a very good homo sapiens with a correctly functioning brain.
But if you find that you’re feeling worn out by the constant drive to accumulate more, and want to stop chasing the carrot for a while, I can think of no simpler method than blocking off a month of time and working hard on your diet and exercise. It has a way of snapping you back to what’s really important. At the end of that month you’ll be looking and feeling more like your true self underneath all the fancy stuff hedonism has piled on top.
Not sure where to start? Join a Kenzai program, we’ll steer you towards the right choices!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder