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What is Hedonic Adaptation and How Can it Turn You Into a Sucka?


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In writing this blog for you, Mr. Money Mustache actually has three major goals:

  1. To make you rich so you can retire early.
  2. To make you happy so you can properly enjoy your early retirement.
  3. To save the whole Human Race from destroying itself through overconsumption of its over habitat.

All three of these goals are in perfect alignment, and they mix and mingle in different ways depending on which aspect of Mustachanism we are discussing at any given time. Today we’ll be focusing in on #2: What actually makes us happy.

Now, everybody knows that I like to promote a relatively frugal lifestyle. Critics of my approach have said things like this,

“You can’t take your money with you when you die, buddy. How’d you like to die tomorrow after scrimping and saving for your whole life, never having spent your money?”

“I happen to like driving around in a nice car. There’s no way I’m going to bike to work all week and work hard every day just so I can drive around in a $5,000 shitbox on the weekends” *

“I like to buy myself something nice a few times a year. What’s the harm as long as I’m staying within my budget?”

In fact, even the relatively frugal financial blogger I call Mortgage Free Mike once wrote this comment on an earlier MMM article:

“You have a really great. and unique… attitude about money. I’m not sure if I can regularly deny myself purchases, but at the same time tell myself that it’s a win, but it’s worth a shot!”

All of these statements would have sounded perfectly rational to me when I was just a little younger. In fact, the one breakthrough that flipped my thinking on the matter was learning about the scientific studies that have been done on hedonic adaptation.

In less fancy terms, what this term means is that “no matter what happens to you in your life, you’ll very quickly get used to it”. Hedonic Adaptation is a feature built right into your Human DNA that allows you to function efficiently in a wide variety of environments, even very harsh ones.

A most striking example of this was a 1978 psychological study that evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners, and recently injured paraplegics relative to the general population. As you’d expect, the lottery winners were pretty upbeat immediately after their win, and the paraplegics were pretty pissed off. But within just two months. both groups had returned back to the average level of happiness.

“That’s Impossible!”. I thought. “How could this be!?”

Well, it turns out that when a person jumps to a new level of material convenience, he loses the ability to enjoy the things he previously thought were pretty neat. A cold Bud Light was once a true delight after a work day for the lottery winner, but after the win he quits the job and takes up high-end scotch, poured by a personal butler. Both serve the same purpose, and the pleasure is about the same. Similarly, when moving down the hedonic scale, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we can learn to appreciate simpler things with just as much gusto as we would have appreciated more expensive things. I truly love the sound of the wheels of my bike slicing through the quiet wind on an open road, just as much as I enjoyed the whirring sound of the gear-driven camshafts and the rich tuned exhaust note of my old VFR800 motorcycle.

This happiness averaging also explains why we the people of the most materially abundant country in the world, the United States, where the gas is the cheapest and the cars are the fanciest and the houses are the biggest, are actually quite far below other less wealthy countries in the world when we evaluate our own happiness. Depending on the survey, you’ll see countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Bhutan, Mexico, Cuba, and others kicking our ass, and the US rarely ranks above #17 on the list.

It is intuitively hard to believe these things at first, when you have been raised as a consumer. My cravings for the crisply carved seats and slickety smooth gearshift of a Mini Cooper S felt very real. Just as Mrs. Money Mustache’s cravings for the artistic perfection and self confidence boost offered by the latest names in athletic fashion felt real. In fact, the cravings ARE real, and the adrenaline rush of buying these new things is real as well. They really do make you feel happy – for a very short time.

The key for me is not denying the existence of the craving or the short term rush. It’s zooming out and reminding myself, “Dude, the scientists have already figured this out for you. You can buy the Cooper, and get a short term rush, or you can put that same energy and money into doing something that creates far more lasting happiness.”

And that’s the golden nugget for you. You only have a limited lifespan, and you’ve got a real chance to go get yourself some lasting happiness. Are you going to spend that time chasing the scientifically-proven-to-be-ineffective short adrenaline rushes that you get from buying yourself some more shit? Or would you prefer to actually experience Several Golden Decades of Deluxe Life that are so good you look back and laugh at them even when you are a Skeleton?

Luckily, the wise scientists and psychologists who came before us have already done the work, and we know, in a general sense, what is most likely to make a person happy. And when it comes down to a battle between my own emotion-biased intuition, and real scientific research, I’m going to side with the scientists every time, because I always bet on the side where the odds are in my favor.

In no particular order, the biggest factors influencing human happiness include meaningful work (with lots of autonomy, low stress, and low fear of losing your job), private life, community, health, freedom, and a philosophy of life.

Pretty simple isn’t it? And you will note that the Way of the Money Mustache addresses all of these areas.

Because work is such an important part of human happiness, as a Mustachian you will work as quickly as possible to take the money component out of it, so that you can have the option of deciding like a real Adult what kind of work you want to do each day. To achieve this, you will lower your expenses and put the incredibly high level of savings that result, directly to work for you. And in the process, you won’t suffer at all, because all you’re giving up is a little bit of the Hedonic Adaptation Crack Cocaine.

By gaining financial independence, you will naturally turn more to helping others, bonding with your own family and friends and community, and you’ll have the extra time and the reduced stress levels allowing you to take better care of your health. Freedom goes without saying – here in the rich world, the only widespread form of slavery is the economic type. Debt and an addiction to high consumption are a very real form of slavery, and gaining freedom from it is a genuine contributor to Real Happiness.

People who are already financially independent might now step in and say “Aha, but if I’ve already got the freedom and the health, then  am I allowed to go out and buy myself a whole bunch of fancy shit?”.

This question becomes more complicated. I’ve pretty much been cured from the desire for a lifestyle any more luxurious than the one I already live. And I’m actually hoping to step it down gradually over time. The obvious reason to reject things like a fancier car or house is that they use up more of the planet’s natural resources that could be used to help someone else instead. On the other hand, buying more services and experiences in your own community might end up supporting younger and less wealthy people (students, actors, musicians, artists) which might do a bit of good to society and share your wealth. I like the idea of starting businesses that employ a wide variety of people and treat them unusually well. Or creating funding incentives for schools and students in such a way that they up their game significantly. It’s a tricky problem, deciding what is the most efficient use for extra money, but I’ll leave it to you to think it over when you get there.

So when you hear people who are still in the Sukka Consumer mindset, telling you that they don’t want to deprive themselves of the happiness afforded by buying things for themselves, even while they struggle with debt or unpleasant work, tell them to look into the science behind what they are saying. They’re actually like a dangerously unfit person saying they don’t want to deprive  themselves of the pleasure of sitting on the couch all day and go out for a walk instead.

Science has proven they are both wrong. The sooner you can accept this convenient fact, the sooner you can become rich. And happy!

 * Actual closely paraphrased quote made somewhere online about an MMM article

Category: Bank

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