Hedonic Adaptation

Why we're never satisfied with what we've already accomplished

Hedonic Adaptation explained


Hedonic adaptation is our tendency to quickly return to our normal levels of happiness after both positive and negative external events. We pursue a promotion, a raise at work, a certain number of Twitter followers because that’s what we believe will make us happy. When we reach our goals, we get a temporary bump in happiness, only to go right back to our baseline levels the next week, day, or even hour.

What good is striving for goals if accomplishing them leaves us feeling empty moments later?

What to do about it:

Set many smaller goals instead of one big one. Most of us set big, far-off goals that we’ll only accomplish every once in a long while: graduate college, lose 50 pounds, get the promotion, run a marathon. Go big or go home. We spend a great deal of time pursuing a goal that will only give us a one-time, temporary bump in happiness when we accomplish it. Instead, you can hack hedonic adaptation by setting smaller, more frequent goals to experience more frequent bumps in happiness, even if they’re still temporary.

Enjoy the process, not just the outcome. If you’re a writer, don’t fantasize about publishing a novel. Savor writing it. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t obsess over hitting a number on the scale. Savor the satisfaction of feeling stronger, fitter, faster with each lift, step, or burpee.

The outcome won’t make you happier, but the act of showing up every day can. If you don’t enjoy the process, it might be that you were pursuing the wrong outcome in the first place.

Pursue strong social connections. While happiness from promotions and raises is fleeting, studies that follow people over many decades show that strong relationships with others – family, friends, or broader community – is the strongest predictor of long-term happiness and health.

By all means, pursue big, ambitious goals, but don’t neglect the people who will celebrate with you when you achieve them.

More reading if you’re interested:

The Surprising Science of Happiness [TED Talk]

Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?

Learn about six other cognitive biases that make us suck at time management. 🙃

Who are we? Doist is the remote-first company behind Todoist and Twist. We operate on the (sadly controversial) belief that you can be ambitious without making yourself (or your team) miserable. We publish comics and other things about work and life. Subscribe to the Ambition & Balance newsletter below for exclusive content in your inbox weekly(ish).

Comic artwork by Anaïs Pirlot-Mares 🎨 Written by Becky Kane ✏️