Hacking Happiness


Priya Raju had written 2 wonderful posts on Happiness Quotient part 1 and part 2. It may be worth your while to read them both, before reading this post.

Upside of Irrrationality

I wanted to add another dimension to the topic based on some recent learnings from Dan Ariely’s brilliant book Upside of Irrationality (I strongly recommend this book to all of you). Based on the book I and Priya Raju had some discussions and this post is an output of those discussions.

In the book, Dan has a chapter on a phenomenon called Hedonic Adaptation. Without giving away too much from his book, Hedonic Adaptation is the process by which our mind becomes accustomed to pleasure and pain.

Since happiness is associated mostly with pleasure, we will look into pleasure.

Diwali Dress

To illustrate Hedonic Adaptation, let me share a story. When I was a child, my parents used to buy us a new dress once a year during the festival of Diwali. The sheer anticipation of the new dress and the joy of wearing the new dress for Diwali still lingers in my memory.

Through the years I have bought so many clothes that, buying a new dress is more like a chore, these days. No more joy left in buying a new dress.

This is how we get accustomed to buying gadgets, cars or in general objects/things. This may also be the reason why our wise ancients have talked extensively about why material possessions don’t give us happiness.

Obviously, we can’t all renounce our livelihood and walk off to the Himalayas and become spiritual beings, whatever that means 🙂

How do we beat Hedonic Adaptation then?

One of the ways is to avoid the focus on buying things and focus on experiences like vacations (many researchers have pointed this out). Since we tend to go to different places every time we go on vacation, Hedonic Adaptation can be avoided.

One other way, self and Priya spotted is art – as Keats said long ago “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”. Thanks to Priya, we have a collected a lot of art objects in our home. Every time I feel down, I look at them and feel instantly better. Even when I’m not feeling down these art objects give me happiness and inspiration. Hedonic Adaptation doesn’t seem to occur even though these are still objects.

I have been thinking and reading recently about Zen Buddhism and Mindfulness. I haven’t fully understood mindfulness to be able to practice it. But the emphasis on staying in the present and enjoying every moment might offer a way out of Hedonic Adaptation.


What are your thoughts on Hedonic Adaptation? Are there other ways to beat Hedonic Adaptation that you have discovered?


  1. Quote

    For me happiness is a matter of choice. If I want to keep smiling no matter whatever the odds against me, nothing can stop me from being happy. The desire to be happy gives me the strength and conviction to take action which would ultimately make me happy.

  2. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 5, 2011, 5:36 pm:

    Thanks for your comment. If that works for you, power to you.

    Your statement doesn’t satisfy my curiosity, though. I would like to dig deeper into Happiness. Hedonic Adaptation is an important brain process for us to understand if we want to understand Happiness better.

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    Santosh (subscribed) said June 5, 2011, 6:17 pm:

    IMHO, pleasure and happiness are completely different paradigms. Pleasure is fleeting, happiness is a state of being. One never gets tired of quoting Viktor Hankl from his ‘Man’s search for meaning’ : ‘ Happiness, like success, cannot be pursued. It has to ensue. And it does, as an unintended byproduct of one’s dedication to a cause greater than himself’. This sounds very profound and so true. For this level of actualization, one needs to be immune to both pleasure and pain. I do start the day with this thought, but maya catches up in just a few minutes and I become just one of the 6 billion on a treadmill running and going nowhere. Guess one needs to be formally trained on mindfullness to be able to sustain the thought, or ER, the lack of thought!!!

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    archana raghuram said June 5, 2011, 6:49 pm:

    My 2cents. Persuing a hobby is another way to beat Hedonic adoptation. Buying/reading a good book never ceases to make me happy. Its almost like a talisman, protects from the ups and downs of life.

  5. Quote

    Excellent Post and thanks for book recommendation.

    Nature and Spiritual are very important to permanent happiness. Nature and Spiritual have something infinity, something never ending permanent pleasure. For example, I’m mowing lawn for years and after mowing extra length grass, the fresh looking lawn gives me happiness so mowing lawn is pleasurable moment for me. Based on my opinion, quantifiable things are subject to hedonic adaptation, don’t measure things like i have to mow lawn every 2 weeks, instead whenever you feel that lawn needs a cut or new look. If i would have followed time table, i would have bored with lawn mowing. But i’m very interested still now, feel better after each lawn mowing. Spirituality also gives the same pleasure as nature gives.

  6. Quote

    Hedonic adaptation isn’t a bad thing after all. It has role to play in various life’s experiences and situations. eg how about Divorced learning to cope and feel better , had it not been for HA, life would have been miserable for longer time in divorce cases.

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    Kavitha (subscribed) said June 6, 2011, 7:24 am:

    Insightful post Sukumar/Priya.

    To beat Hedonic Adaptation I concentrate on one of the 3 factors which is 40 % intentional activity, over which I have control.

    For me – working on Outreach activities promises different kind of experiences each time and I derive happiness from this. Blogging is another such since each time you write on different topics. The energy that I derive from these, I can use them in other activities that I do not like too !

    Thanks for the post once again

  8. Quote
    sillyman (subscribed) said June 6, 2011, 9:39 am:

    Keep it simple silly. Don’t coin an obscure word for something so simple. Let me explain.

    “The sheer anticipation of the new dress and the joy of wearing the new dress for Diwali still lingers in my memory.”

    Dig deeper. You were happy not because you or your dad bought you a freaking new dress but because your neighbours, your cousins, your friends would have said.. WOW sukumar you look great in the new dress or atleast wow sukumar your dress looks great 🙂

    “Through the years I have bought so many clothes that, buying a new dress is more like a chore, these days. No more joy left in buying a new dress.”

    Yes of course. Here is a simple test for you. Tomorrow go out and buy a new dress but this time take a small risk buy something that does not befit your age. Buy something bright and colorful. Now wear it to your office. If no one notices – end of experiment.

    If someone notices and says “Hey sukumar you look great or atleast hey sukumar you look different ” BINGO you have once again brought the joy of buying new clothes into your life again. You will be tempted to experiment again believe me.

    Now cut the crap about some bloody “Hedonic Adaptation. ” !!!


  9. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:13 pm:

    In general, the accepted theory of happiness is that it is a “state of mind”. That is not sufficient for my curiosity. I would like to dig deeper. Yes i agree we may not want to pursue happiness directly. But that doesn’t answer the question, what do we pursue to obtain happiness? In this context hedonic adaptation is an important neural process that if we are aware we may be able to take advantage of it, in our quest for happiness.

    Hope that helps.

  10. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:15 pm:

    Thanks. I guess it would depend on what type of hobby it is. If it is experiential (as opposed to something like stamp collecting), it may be more helpful. Yes, books are great, no doubt.

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:17 pm:

    Thanks Subba. Quantifiable things are subject to hedonic adaptation. That is very insightful. Need to think some more on it.

  12. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:19 pm:

    That is a good insight. Many brain processes are like that. What is good for us in some contexts becomes harmful in some other contexts. The point is, we have to be aware of Hedonic Adaptation in our quest for happiness.

    Hope that helps.

  13. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:21 pm:

    Thanks Kavitha. Yes i can see how Outreach and Blogging can bring happiness. Good insights.

  14. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 2:35 pm:

    You make an interesting point. However, you are assuming that people wear a new dress/dress up expecting compliments from other people. That is an incorrect assumption.

    I was happy with my Diwali Dress because it was new. Pure & Simple. In fact, i don’t recall the “appreciation” bit. I don’t consider other people appreciating my dress as an important thing.

    Your idea of buying a new type of color/dress is a good insight. Will try that sometime.

    BTW, i didn’t like the disrespectful tone of your comment. I let it slide because you are making an interesting point. It is easy to write that type of comment with a name like “sillyman”. Try using your real name when you write on the Internet and “respect” will automatically come to you.

  15. Quote
    Meenaks said June 7, 2011, 7:43 pm:

    Interesting post and concept Sukumar. One way of avoiding the Hedonic adaptation in pleasure is to “create” new things every time. I can tie this to Archana’s point on pursuing a hobby. I prefer to have a hobby which involves creating something new. For example, writing. Everytime I write a new story or a poem, I feel the joy of creating something new. But adapting what Sillyman has to say, the joy is not only because it is a new thing, but also because there is a small variety in it. My new story is “slightly different” from the previously written story. Hence the pleasure. If I end up writing the same kind of story again and again, the joy may be diminished. The same can be explained through the hobby of gardening as well. Every time a new flower blooms or a vegetable/fruit grows in your garden, you feel the joy of it. Each new flower/vegetable/fruit is different in its own way from the previous one. Better still, if we can introduce a lot of variety in terms of the plants.

  16. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said June 7, 2011, 10:54 pm:

    In my view, anything that is done/consumed for explicit purpose/objective of happiness, instantly leads to Hedonic Adaptation .. happiness should be a byproduct and NOT the end product..

  17. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 9, 2011, 11:08 am:

    Thanks Meenaks. Yes hobbies which involve creating like writing, gardening etc are going to be beneficial. Good one.

  18. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 9, 2011, 11:11 am:

    Agreed Senthil Happiness is a byproduct. However, becoming aware of hedonic adaptation will allow us to pursue the right things that will give us happiness (while still being a by product). Hope that helps.

  19. Quote
    Kumaran said June 11, 2011, 7:49 am:

    Interesting observation. One way of not getting into the Hedonic trap is to have “Gratitude” towards life.

    Interstingly Warren Buffet made the following statement at his famous Berkeshire conference –
    ” To become rich you need to feel rich. To feel rich you need to express gratitude for every single thing you have at the present.”

    Simple things to express gratitiude
    1.Gratitude to read/write english ( that is only I can do this comment). Lot of people in the world today dont have this.
    2. Access to internet .. etc…

    So if start expressing gratitude to waht we have daily we have a good chance of experiencing joy at what we have and any small change/addition to that also will gives by that feeling of goodness.

  20. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 11, 2011, 8:43 am:

    Thanks Kumaran. That’s a great insight Kumaran – gratitude for all the good things we already have.

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    Vamsi (subscribed) said June 15, 2011, 9:17 am:


    I just learned a new concept – Hedonic Adaptation – though I know exactly how it feels. Could we apply hedonic adaptation to the goals. If we reach a goal, unless we set a higher goal, we do not get the same kick (pleasure or happiness or sense of achievement).

    As far as I am concerned – just like Travel – reading good books, particularly classical fiction is a good way to beat this. I think for each their own – if one is not an art lover, one cannot expect to appreciate art.

    I also find – acquiring knowledge – using internet a great way to get happiness. The blogs and tweets I follow, the new people I meet, the new framework I learned, etc a great way to beat this. And the ultimate source of my happiness these days is Khan Academy.

    Thanks once again.

  22. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 19, 2011, 5:41 pm:

    Thanks Vamsi. Yes, if you don’t chase new goals, you may become complacent. I am not sure that is hedonic adaptation.

    Acquiring knowledge or more broadly learning new things. Good one.

  23. Quote
    pk.karthik said June 20, 2011, 4:56 am:

    Great Post Sukumar.It really made me think.In my opinion anything which was not achievable once upon a time and once achieved will give a hedonistic pleasure.As kids when resources wer scarce and wearing a new dress was rarity a new dress brought a sense of joy .I remeber when the smell of new clothes used to bring in a thrill in me.
    So I feel if any desire which seems unachievable once achived will give the sudden thrill or exhirilation..

  24. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 26, 2011, 6:41 pm:

    Thanks Karthik. That is a great insight – something that is unachievable, once achieved gives happiness.

  25. Quote

    Currently reading a book by Jonathan Haidt “Happiness Hypothesis” which really pushes the limits of our understanding of happiness and it resonates well with Priya Raju’s previous two articles and your current article.One of the things which captures our imagination is the example of “The elephant and the Mahout” where the normal understanding is the Mahout controls the elephant whereas here you would see that the Mahout would do the elephants bidding-which is equivalent of our reasons vs.emotions struggle to experience happiness.

  26. Quote
    Vijay Raghunathan said June 28, 2011, 3:41 pm:

    Insightful post and comments Sukumar. ‘Hedonic adaptation’ – something that everyone experiences almost daily or at least regularly; but to define that experience in so simple a sentence (‘The process by which our mind becomes accustomed to pleasure and pain’) is very good Sukumar. I just liked that very much 🙂

    My practical views on this – whenever you have a strong passion for something big, a vision, a dream (becoming a national cricketer, an actor, a musician etc…), your mind would escape to a great extent this phenomenon. Until you reach there, your heart and soul works for that. Regular recognition in between in any form rekindles the interest and hope at tough times in the journey towards achieving the dream. So, identifying what you are passionate about in life, and working towards it is a great way, I see, to overcome this. My passion for example, is Classical music. I don’t seem to get bored at all listening, singing, discussing on and on. But, the actual passion varies from person to person

    On top of that, a break from monotony is the demand of the day. Monotony of life style (you might have your own house, money, car, children etc.) induces this phenomenon. So, meticulously taking break in different forms helps overcome this. Going for a vacation to a distant foreign land, visiting your home town, visiting pilgrimage places, meeting up with relatives after a long time, all these helps…

  27. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 3, 2011, 7:39 pm:

    Thanks Mouthu. I’ll add that book to my todo list.

  28. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 3, 2011, 7:49 pm:

    Thanks Vijay. Glad you liked it. Thanks for the additional insights.

  29. Quote

    Hi Sukumar

    Some time since I’ve been around in the blogging world 🙂 In the mean time , I got married and moved to Singapore for an assignment.

    I think a nice way of beating the Hedonic adaptation is to meet newer ppl as frequently as possible. There might be few things that might build new neurons in the brain like trying to adapt & adjust to newer ppl. A trip together with newly made friends (once we get comfortable of course) , or a movie outing would certainly make anyone more happy. That also would bring with it some much needed social networking (the real kind) to our generation I guess !

    Small blog request – Could you suggest some of the best books that you have read over the years & would recommend to others. Don’t know if you have already put it somewhere on the net. If yes, a link shd do. Thanks in anticipation 🙂

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