Have you ever wondered why your first bite of chocolate cake always tastes so much better than every bite that follows? You might still enjoy your slice right up until that last bit of icing is gone, but only the very first taste gives you that intense rush of delight that makes you think you’ve never tasted a better piece of cake in your life.
The phenomenon you’re experiencing when this happens is called hedonic adaptation. What does that mean? In a nutshell, humans are most comfortable when we are in a fairly stable emotional state. We naturally resist being too high or too low because we like a “happiness set point1”, which is a baseline that we eventually return to once we have adjusted to a pleasurable or unpleasant event that has happened.
That last bite of cake is actually every bit as good as the first one, but you just don’t notice it because you’ve already adapted to the joy and have returned to your happiness set point by the time you’ve finished your slice.
Hedonic adaptation is a useful mechanism because it also helps us adapt and adjust to bad things in our lives, but it does mean that joy can seem awfully fleeting sometimes. However, there are ways to trick your brain into enjoying things longer in order to keep those precious moments of bliss from fading so quickly. All we have to do is slow down the adaptation process by changing things up whenever we can.
How to lengthen your moments of joy
The short answer is to try to do new things – and try to do ordinary things differently – as often as possible. According to Psychology Today2 adding this kind of variety into your life means you can’t get used to the novelty of the experiences you’re having because they keep changing, and your reaction to them is unpredictable. That means those moments of joy and excitement will be far more frequent!
You can make variety part of your life by trying the following ideas:
- Instead of the same old evening of TV with your spouse, do something different together. Take an art class, go for a walk (choose a new route each night), take in a lecture at your local college, go to the movies, read to each other, or play a game.
- If you’re bored at your job, ask for new tasks or responsibilities, take some training courses, or approach routine tasks differently.
- If your house so longer gives you the same joy it once did, rearrange the furniture, make some new art for the walls, cover your pillows with new fabric, declutter a troublesome room so it looks cleaner and more spacious, or add some plants to a sunny window.
- If cooking no longer holds any joy for you, try cooking food from a different country every night, go vegetarian for a week, ask friends to send you new recipes and vow to make every single one, cook a meal using only ingredients that you currently have in your fridge, cook a meal using only ingredients you currently have in your pantry, or cook a meal using only local produce – whatever happens to be in season.
- If mealtimes are mundane, change where you eat as well as what you eat. Try a carpet picnic or eat off of TV trays in another room, have dinner in bed, eat in the dining room instead of the kitchen, or eat outside if the weather allows.
- If you have a certain route you have to drive or walk each day, try to add some variety by listening to different music, carpooling so you have company, giving walking meditation a try , or listening to audio books.
- If you’re meeting up with friends, try a new restaurant or group activity, or add a new friend to the group.
- Try new hobbies and look for different ways to spend your down time in the evenings and on weekends.
As an added bonus, when we switch up our routine and try new things, the days don’t pass by in the same kind of blur that they usually do. So by resisting hedonic adaptation, not only can you add more joy to your days, but you can also trick your mind into thinking you’ve added more hours too!
Another way to resist immediate adaptation is to focus on gratitude – even if it’s for something completely ordinary and mundane. In fact, especially so!
If you are enjoying a great piece of cake, think about it. Focus on the texture, the delicious scent, and the satisfaction you feel with each bite you take. Be mindful as you eat, and make sure to really think about all the things you’re experiencing as you do so. And don’t let that cake disappear from your head the moment you swallow the last bite either! Remember it when it’s gone, and think about how it made you feel when you ate it. According to Psychology Today2, appreciating positive experiences after the fact can actually make our happiness last.
Read more about the science behind hedonic adaptation at Positive Psychology Program.
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