/ Life Advice

Hedonic Adaptation

This post originally appeared as part of my weekly email newsletter. Click here to check out the previous issues and maybe subscribe :)

Hey guys,

Welcome to my first ever weekly email. Feels a bit weird to be writing one of these, but I’ve heard that anything that’s worth doing feels weird initially, so it’s fine. Of course, even stuff that isn’t worth doing feels weird initially - guess we’ll just treat this as an experiment.

I want to talk to you this week about hedonic adaptation. In case you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Hedonic adaptation is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

I think hedonic adaptation is probably the single most important (and somewhat unintuitive) part of our psychology that we should keep in mind at all times.

At the bottom of this email, you’ll find 2 links that I think illustrate the point beautifully. The Wait But Why article is one I read several times each year to remind myself of the power and cruelty of hedonic adaptation.

I’ve been thinking about hedonic adaptation this week for 2 reasons. Firstly, I’ve been getting a lot of messages from (mostly) GCSE and A-Level students stressed about exams, and feeling the pressure of needing good grades to make university offers. If I’m ever on the verge of feeling any level of stress about exams, I think about two things - (1) ‘action is the antidote to anxiety’ - I ask myself 'if we had the exam today, which topics would I be unhappy about’ and I tackle those topics in a focused fashion, and thus the action allays the anxiety regarding particular topics. (2) I think that 'even if this doesn’t go well, it’ll have no impact at all on my long-term happiness’. This applies to everything from exams to university places to applying for study abroad programmes to where we’ll end up as junior doctors etc. Thus, I find that appreciating the power of hedonic adaptation works nicely as an antidote to fear.

On a more personal note, a friend and I have been looking for houses around Cambridge to live in for the next 2 years while we work as junior doctors. We’ve found some really nice places that stretch the budget a bit, and some less nice places that are more affordable. Hedonic adaptation is something we’ve been keeping in the back of our minds - in the sense of 'tbh, no matter where we end up, we’ll likely be equally happy so we should take that into account when making decisions’. This might be a reason to opt for the less-nice-but-more-affordable houses. There are other factors as well of course - sociable-ness, ease of access to work/town, whether significant repairs need to be made, how nice the living room is to serve as a recording studio for videos etc - I’ll keep you updated as to how the search goes. It feels quite surreal to be thinking about houses and stuff at this stage, but I guess that’s the next step in life after university, and becoming a proper adult.

Do check out the links below if you’ve got time - the ’Life is a Picture’ article especially blew my mind when I first came across it, and really did change the way I look at everyday life and decision making.

Have a great week!

  1. https://waitbutwhy.com/2013/11/life-is-picture-but-you-live-in-pixel.html
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auowsk9OfYU

Ali Abdaal

6th year medic, YouTuber, web designer, aspiring musician. Trying out this blogging thing.

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