What phenomenon happens to every person on earth every day of their lives without anyone realising it or learning from?
The answer is hedonic adaptation. It’s the tendency of humans to go back to a stable level of happiness, even after something good (or bad) has happened to them.
If you’ve ever dreamed of doing or buying something that seemed unobtainable at the time, thinking, “I’ll be happy when I have that”, then after getting it you find yourself getting so used to having it that eventually you move onto wanting something new, you’ve experienced running on the hedonic treadmill.
You keep chasing bigger and better things, but you’re not really going anywhere. That’s how people who win the lottery revert back to the same level of happiness after a few years, and even billionaires have their own problems. In the end there is never enough money/stuff/fame/power/achievements/love that you can’t get used to eventually.
It may be in our nature to always be seeking more, but it’s a recipe for perpetual unhappiness.
What can we do about it? It turns out, insatiable human appetite isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s a conundrum at least 2,000 years old because even in ancient times the Stoics were thinking about it. They may not have been pining for the latest smartphone or sports cars back then, but they had the same issues we do today—how do we find a balance between our unlimited wants with trying to live a virtuous and happy life?
Their solution was simple—imagine the worst that could happen. They called this negative visualisation. Essentially it’s an exercise where you take the things you value the most, it could be anything at all, and imagine for a minute not having it. You’ll realise just how much you take it for granted.
For example, think of a beloved spouse, family member, or child. It sounds horrible, but imagine they will die tomorrow. What will you do on their last day? Would you waste time watching TV or staying late after work? No! You would spend every moment you could with that person, savouring every minute of it.
Compare this with someone who takes the more common approach of banishing all negative thoughts from their mind. They think they’re better off but they are living in denial that their beloved could one day be gone. So they go about their daily lives as most people do, without realising that they’re taking the most precious things for granted. In the end, they will probably have more regrets about how they spent their time.
You might think this is all quite morbid, but who do you think is the person who is happier and more grateful for their loved one? Is it the person who periodically thinks about the fact that nothing lasts forever so they better make the most of it, or the person who doesn’t think about it at all? Who do you think is more grateful? Who do you think will have the fewest regrets?
The same could be applied to anything—you could imagine for a minute losing your home, or your job, or your health, or specific things such as your eyesight, access to the internet, running water, or political stability in your country… there is an infinite number of things that would be terrible or uncomfortable to live without. There is so much to be grateful for.
The Stoics advised doing this kind of exercise every now and again, maybe a few times a week or daily at most. Imagining the worst isn’t supposed to make you worry or become a morbid pessimist. It’s a reminder to appreciate things while you have them, and mitigate utter disappointment when not everything goes your way.
Saying that, exercising negative visualisation doesn’t mean anyone wouldn’t be devastated to lose something that is important to them. It’s not intended to be a magical solution to all problems. But learning to be grateful for what you already have, even for a few moments, will give you a break from running on that treadmill.
Indeed, often when I do this, when I realise I still have whatever it is I was thinking about losing, it feels like I’m waking up from a bad dream. I’m so relieved that it even makes me smile. So I encourage you to ask yourself today—what do you value most that you take for granted?