Hedonic Adaptation


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!

PS: Please do reply to this email if you have anything to add / any questions. I quite enjoy replying to comments/emails as a source of procrastination from revision.

PPS: Please hit the <reply> button and let me know what you thought of this email, if you have a spare few seconds. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what was useful about it and what could be changed. Thanks <3

Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel – Wait But Why

The relationship is going all right and Jack’s reasonably happy, but for a while now, Jack has known that the Today he’s with is not the one. Sure, he and Today have fun sometimes, but all too often, Jack feels like he’s dating a mundane Wednesday, and that’s certainly not the kind of Today he plans to be with in the long run.

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Victoria Yu
8 months ago

Hi Ali, Thanks for sharing this very first newsletter that you wrote with me! I’m happy that I read about this. Now I can put a name on what was happening. “Hedonic Adaption” It’s amazing how we all have specific terms for all sorts of symptoms or things that happen to us. (Not sure if symptoms are a good word for it though.)
But I have to thank you so much for writing this newsletter. I came upon and found it through your YouTube channel while looking at how to make a website via WordPress. Funny how it got me really inspired and interested in a newsletter, which I’m also starting my own, as of today! But super excited. I wanted to write a little message to you to say thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion for creativity and productivity! (Mostly when I saw that there weren’t any thoughts in your first post, I shall be the first to share my thoughts! ) This message is getting a bit long, but please keep up the amazing work and continue to inspire many people out there in the world. And I shall be taking my first journey writing a newsletter. We shall keep in touch!
Wishing you a wonderful day.

Laszlo Varga
24 days ago

Dear Ali,
I am currently – in this very moment – writing the first issue of my substack newsletter and it is really comforting to see where you have started! I appreciate your work, you inspire me a LOT!