The Science of Well-Being

Annoying Features of the Mind Part 3


Here we are, the final part of week 3, from The Science of Well-Being. And we will be discussing the Annoying Features of the Mind Part 3. So far we have discussed Annoy Features of the Mind Part 1 & 2. Miswanting, absolute vs relative reference points, and social comparison. Go check them out. There is lots of information, but it is really eye opening!

Now, let’s dive into, Annoying Features of the Mind Part 3.

Annoying Feature # 3

Hedonic adaptation. Have you noticed that our minds adapt over time? That they habituate?

Side note, I love the word habituate: to make or become accustomed or used to something. Just like I love the word equanimity.

Sorry guys, we are going back to the concept of vision, just because it is easy for us to “see” these concepts.

Perceptual Adaptation: the ability of our bodies to adapt to an environment by filtering out distractions. For example, when you go from a dark movie theater, out into a sunny day. It seems like the brightest thing you have ever seen. That is because your visual system adapted to the darkness. So much so that it just assumes it is going to be dark outside as well. We can also see this adaptation with colors.


Stare intensely at the image for 15-20 seconds, then quickly look away at a blank, white background (your wall, table cloth, etc).

As you were staring at this flag, your mind was habituating, your color receptors were adapting, and you get them phenomena of perceptual adaptation. You get an afterimage that arises from your visual system. The picture or object is no longer there but your brain continues to have a visual experience.

Try it out on this image:

This one was really defined! Can you see Amy Winehouse?

Hedonic Adaptation

The phenomena of perceptual adaptation is similar to hedonic adaptation and what makes us happy. We started with perceptual adaptation so that you could “see” or grasp this idea.

Hedonics is the branch of psychology that deals with pleasurable and unpleasurable states of consciousness. When we adapt, this makes a lot of the awesome stuff we see and have, not as awesome as it once was. 

Hedonic adaptation meaning that we don’t just get a stimulus and then it is there, stimulating us all the time, we just get used to it. So you get something really awesome, then you want more of it, and the more you get the more awesome it will be. But the fact is, that is wrong. This is not the way it works. And partially why it does not work is because of hedonic adaptation.

Our minds are built to get used to stuff

You get the new job, you get the new car, meet your soulmate, etc. These things stick around, and you get used to them. They become your new normal and they stop bringing you the happiness you expect. And then they reset your reference point for the future.

This can even relate to your salary. Remember in our previous post? We discussed how as you get a raise, eventually this is not enough. People making $30,000 want $50,000. Others making $100,000 want $250,000. Or, remember the other study that found that as soon as your income gets bumped up $1.00 you actually want $1.40 more? Salary is a regular subject where we see hedonic adaptation.

There is a study, done by Di Tella et al., where they looked at 7,000 individuals and their salary adaptation over 20 years. So as their salary went up, did they get use to it? What happened to their happiness levels?

The red line is happiness levels. Dark line is income. So no. Happiness levels did not significantly rise with income.

We can look at the other extreme. So instead of a small increase in salary over time, what about one giant lump sum of money at once? Like when winning the lottery.

Brickman and colleagues did a study that looked at lottery winners. At one year after winning they assessed their happiness levels against a control group of people who did not win the lottery. Lottery winners reported 4/6 happiness. The non-lottery winners, the control group, came out at 3.82/6, statistically no difference!

So even though you win a gigantic amount of money and you think you will never get used to having so much money, you actually do. You just get used to having that amount of money and it becomes your new normal.

This is also true in marriages. As we discussed in previous posts, we learned that the honeymoon stage, the first 2 years, is a real phase. Then you just habituate to your partner. You get used to them.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist, who has been mentioned in previous posts, has a book called Stumbling Into Happiness. He notes that wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen. But this wanes with repetition. He gives some more examples:

The first time you say “I love you” to your partner is the best thing ever. But then months, years down the road, we say it like it is nothing. Or when your child first says “mommy” it is the best thing ever. But 18 years later, it just doesn’t seem that special anymore. This is sad!

We want these things to stick around and remain awesome. But as we get used to them, we just get sad or bored over time.

Annoying Feature # 4

Mispredicting. Annoying feature # 4 is even more insidious than hedonic adaptation. In addition to having this adaptation, we also don’t realize that our minds have this adaptation. We don’t realize that our minds get used to things. This messes with our predictions of our happiness because we think the happy things that we seek out are going to make us happy for a long time. We don’t realize that it doesn’t work that way.

A little secret? We have powerful tools to get ourselves out of thinking negative things about ourselves or about awful things that could happen. We have a whole suite of psychological traits to force ourselves to feel better. 

The other crazy thing is we don’t realize we have these. We’re constantly forgetting how resilient we really are. And that means we’re mispredicting, and this is why this annoying feature is one of the most insidious ones because it means we don’t know how powerful and how resilient we are. 

My apologies

This was a tough section for me to chew. I tried my hardest to put what I learned into easy to read chunks. But this information goes deep. I really recommend checking out the course if you want me dive further into this.

To sum up the anoying features:

  • #1- Miswanting
  • #2 Reference points
  • #3 Hedonic adaptation
  • #4 Mispredicting

Hopefully next week will go over how to turn these annoying features off!

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