In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine shares a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation. It’s a process by which people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill due to their insatiability and boredom to want more constantly. This often leads to unhappiness and the destruction of relationships, financial health, and apathy in the workplace. Once someone fulfills the object of their desire, their life “adapts” to this new state, and the desirability fades. People return to the same dissatisfied state (or even lower) before fulfilling the desire they believed would bring happiness. This leads us to a fundamental idea we must learn and continually practice each day:
“The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have” – William B. Irvine
The technique to mitigate hedonic adaptation is called negative visualization. It’s the conscious thought of imagining that we have lost the things we value. The loss of a relationship, the job you once loved, or the death of a loved one. This can prevent the slow, unconscious process of adaption to a life we did not envision. A state that leads us to take people, our health, and possessions for granted. That insatiable desire for the latest gadget, fancy clothing to impress others, or the fantasy of an unethical relationship alters us off the path we have set for ourselves. It can be elusive and hard to detect because it occurs in small doses over time.
Hedonic adaptation also impacts our careers. We are lucky to land the job we want, but over time we can become frustrated with our responsibilities and colleagues and look for reasons to complain. This leads us to start the search all over again for a greener pasture that may not exist. Embrace your fantastic job and take accountability to deliver value before moving on to your next gig. This will drive fulfillment and credibility instead of wasting energy and valuable time. Organizations and people will evaluate you based on your impact in your last job.
Counterbalancing hedonic adaptation requires mindful discipline. Pause throughout a busy day and reflect on all you have and the possibility of losing everything. The activities you enjoy, the freedom of movement, and the quality times you share with people in your life. Look for the goodness in a relationship and why you value their companionship. Value your car for what it is – transportation, instead of seeking a new one to give you social status that nobody cares about. Learning to want what you already have is a mental state within your control. Don’t put off something to tomorrow that you can do today. That opportunity may not be there tomorrow.
“All things human, are short-lived and perishable.” – Seneca
This positive mindset frees us from the pleasure treadmill and takes joy in things external to ourselves. This mindset motivates us to make the most of each day. Embracing the goodness in our lives and what we already have, helps us remain focused on our unique path. The days of our career journey are numbered. You have everything you need right now to realize remarkable achievement. Now get going.
Photo Credit: Yuliya Ginzburg