The Paradox of Pleasure

Which would make you a happier person, winning the lottery or being in a car crash that leaves you paraplegic?

The answer to this apparently illogical question is, well, neither. Studies show that people who go through these radically different life experiences tend to revert, over time, to their previous level of satisfaction. Winning the lottery will send you to cloud nine for a while, but in a couple of months you’ll be back to where you started, no matter what you do with the money. Even more interestingly, ending up in a wheelchair will destroy you morale in the short run, but over the same amount of time you will again fall back to roughly the same happiness level as before the accident (psychologists call this your set point).

This rather disconcerting trait of human nature is called Hedonic Adaptation, and it was first studied in the 1970s, analyzing precisely the effects of lottery wins and debilitating accidents. Humans have an amazing ability to adjust to the hardships of life: that’s how people carry on after devastating losses and terrible misfortunes. On a more philosophical level, this also means that single life events, no matter how bad or good, do not necessarily alter our existence and might lead to very unexpected consequences. Winston Churchill, writing in his biography, remarked on this: «One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest».

This explains why people who go through terrible illnesses or other life-threatening events often sport a renewed outlook on life (think of how many times Michael J. Fox remarked that his life has been so much better since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease), but it also carries a few unwanted side-effects. It makes it really hard to find happiness, for instance: just like you get used to the bad stuff, you make quick work of the good things as well. This is the Hedonic Treadmill, a perilous exercise that takes the fitness away from your mood. Think of the last time you bought a brand new car: how long did it take before the excitement of driving it wore off? Don Draper put it best in an episode of Mad Men: «What is happiness? It’s just a moment before you need more happiness».

We’re not very good at understanding how we derive pleasure from things. For example, when you’re doing something you hate, like filling out tax forms, you’re always happy to take a break. But when you’re having a good time, you don’t want to interrupt it: nobody wants to get out of the hot tub to pick up the phone. But it turns out we’re dead wrong: separating yourself from a dreaded task makes coming back to it a lot harder, and gets you through the painful process of starting it again. But getting back to something good reignites the pleasure, leaving you with a greater overall satisfaction that cancels out the annoyance of the interruption.

It gets worse. You might think that when evaluating an experience, like a vacation, you rationally weigh all factors and take everything into account. In fact, we tend to judge experiences mostly on how they peaked and ended. This is called, not surprisingly, the peak-end rule and it’s vastly counterintuitive. To imagine this, think of taking a vacation to Hawaii for a week, in two different scenarios. In the first one, you nearly miss your flight because of traffic and, when you get to the islands, it rains for three straight days. But then a gorgeous sunshine comes out, you enjoy the remaining four days, and on the flight back you get bumped to first class for free, arriving home nice and rested. In the second scenario, you get upgraded to first class on the way to Honolulu and enjoy four days of fantastic weather, but then the rain starts. As you grudgingly step off the plane on the way back after having spent the last three days indoors, your find out that your luggage has been lost and you spend an hour filling out forms at the airline desk. Which of the two experiences do you think would leave you more satisfied?

Great psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the idea and conducted a famous study about this in the mid 1990s, focusing on the rather displeasing procedure of colonoscopy, in which a probe is inserted through the anus to inspect the bowels for tumors; the study investigated ways to increase the likelihood that a patient would accept a follow-up procedure in the future. Remembering the peak-end rule and knowing that the discomfort is felt mostly when the instrument is moving, Kahneman suggested that doctors leave it in for a few more minutes at the end, motionless, instead of immediately removing it. Patients treated this way rated the procedure as less painful, even though they had the instrument inside them for longer.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight back. How can you escape the hedonic treadmill, for instance? By buying experiences rather than objects. Research shows that spending money on transient rather than constant experiences will leave you with a much greater level of satisfaction. The memory of something you’ve done or learned can be revisited and stays with you forever, whereas the appeal of a brand new purchase soon fades away. So if you were undecided between that concert ticket and a new pair of shoes, you know what to do now. Happy memories.


3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Pleasure

  1. Great post! I appreciate it– my mom often brings up the lottery example when I’m with her…(regarding what she sees around her).

    I’m sure you’ve read it, but one of the best books I’ve ever come across on finding true happiness is Boethius, consolation of philosophy -written in 580 AD (ish)?
    Amazing: (free PDF version)

    Best to you (ps, it’s raining now in Southern Ca. Good sign I guess!)

  2. Pingback: Turned around and Confused | Ramblings of My BPD and Recovery

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