Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hedonic Adaptation in Retirement

“Ram, are you thinking of coming back to work?” “Are you doing the things you wanted to do?” These are the questions that I regularly get asked via email or phone calls with friends and ex-colleagues.

What they are really asking is this: So now that you left work, are you really, really happy? Since most of us dream of not having to go to work, I know that my answer could be a valuable data point for them.

I really am very happy, but the reason I can’t be gaga ecstatic in my response is because I am aware of hedonic adaptation.

At its simplest, hedonic adaptation is the theory that humans rapidly adapt to their current situation, becoming habituated to the good or the bad. As a mnemonic for this phrase I think of hedonism – the pursuit of pleasure – and then link ‘adapting to it.’

(For the sake of completeness I should also mention that there are many who make nuanced arguments and try to refute or caveat the theory of hedonic adaptation.)

I first came across this term a few years ago in Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book “Stumbling on Happiness.” (I am a happiness literature junkie.)

Lottery winners are almost always mentioned as the textbook example of hedonic adaptation. Every study of lottery winners shows that after around 18 months or so, they are no happier than they were before winning the lottery.

I have seen a variation of it in my own case. Whether I am working or not working, I seem to feel equally busy. When I was working, it was fairly common for my list of to-do’s to have 15-20 items or more. I would knock off as many as I could, and roll over the remaining tasks for the next day. These days, I have much fewer items, but it still feels like I am just as busy. (Witness hedonic adaptation.)

Hedonic adaptation can be a very good thing when things go bad for us. We learn to adapt to it, to return quickly to our ‘set point.’ The flip side is that even when very good things happen to us, we get used to them very quickly too. (Can you remember the very first search you did on Google? It seemed like a great thing had happened to us -- the Web coupled with Google seemed to open up possibilities like never before. But today, we have so thoroughly adapted to the existence of Google in our lives that we just are not as thrilled about it as we once were.)

Knowing that hedonic adaptation exists, I have to constantly remind myself of how fortunate I really am, of how much I value my free time and that I should be using that time for things I think are worth doing, for things that make me happy.

These psychologists (who seem to have a metaphor for everything) are now dubbing this as being on the hedonic treadmill – no matter what speed, you end up in the same place.


Retired Syd said...

That's a great post--so true. Sometimes when people ask me how retirement is, I say that it seems like I've always been retired. I guess that's a different way of saying I've adapted so that it doesn't really feel "special" anymore, it just IS.

Having said that, there are times when I just get hit with the realization that this is really great, that I'm doing this (whatever "this" is) in the middle of the day on a WEEKDAY.

Ram said...


Yes, it seems like some of us are aware of our fortune, and are grateful for being able to do "it" in the middle of weekdays.

I guess that's our internal way of fighting this adaptation and getting all-too-comfortable.


~ Marie ~ said...

May 1st will be two years and I am still basking in gratitude heaven. I have been developing my 'free hobbies' (none of which start until afternoon) and enjoying the heck out of my mundane life.

Of course living for the first time in the Sanoran desert in the spring time doesn't hurt since every day a new cactus blooms to my delight...oh and did I mention the great horn owl chick that lives with it's parents above my RV?

Stretching pennies...worrying less...appreciating more. Life is good.

Ram said...


Congrats on your 2 year anniversary, Marie. More power to you.

It clearly looks like you are enjoying yourself, and it is a double bonus to be aware of how grateful we are to get this opportunity.