When Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, in The House of the Dead, that “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything,” he was talking about the cruelties and deprivations of life in Siberian prison camp. But the human tendency to adapt or “get accustomed” to situations is more profound than even Dostoyevsky may have realized.
Imagine a person who, after years of drinking bland, watery beer from a mass-market brewery, finally tastes a really good craft beer. At first she notices the intensity of the flavor. A few more sips and she comes to appreciate the beer’s complexity and the exquisite balance between bitterness and sweetness. The craft beer is so much more flavorful than what she has been used to drinking, and the experience is highly enjoyable. But check in after a few months when she has been drinking the craft beer on a regular basis. Something has changed. The experience is no longer as special as it was at first. It now takes an even greater taste sensation to yield the same thrill our beer drinker experienced the first few times she tried the craft beer.
We adapt. A great pleasure, repeated often enough, becomes routine, and it takes an even greater treat to give us the same enjoyment. When we get used to having more, it takes more to please us. (Conversely, when we get used to having less, it takes less to please us.) This is the known as the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s analogous to the well-known tendency to adapt to physical stress. When you first start lifting weights, for example, a relatively light weight might be all it takes to start putting on muscle. But once the body adapts to that exercise, heavier and heavier weights will be needed to keep getting stronger.
The idea of the hedonic treadmill can apply to discrete pleasures—like getting accustomed to better beer—or it can apply to an overall lifestyle. There is evidence that if an individual’s basic needs are met, after a certain point, increases in income do not lead to much greater happiness. As the money we have to spend goes up, so too do our expectations and desires—and with them the possibility of disappointment. A now-classic study from 1978 compared the happiness of lottery winners with a control group drawn from the same neighborhoods. The researchers interviewed lottery winners after the initial thrill had worn off. When asked to rate their present level of happiness, the lottery winners answered in the same way as did the control group. The two groups also made similar predictions about their future happiness. And when asked about a number of mundane pleasures—talking with a friend or eating breakfast—the lottery winners actually derived less pleasure than did the control group.
While we quickly adapt to that new handbag or pair of shoes, a good experience provides a happy memory that can be revisited again and again, with less threat of adaptation.
Maybe those lottery winners weren’t more happy because they spent their winnings on the wrong things. A 2011 survey of the available empirical research indicates that spending money on experiences (for example, vacations, dance classes, or nights out with friends) makes people more happy than does spending money on material goods. One of the reasons is that, while we quickly adapt to that new handbag or pair of shoes, a good experience provides a happy memory that can be revisited again and again, with less threat of adaptation.
Another form of pleasure that seems surprisingly resistant to hedonic treadmill-type adaptation is the feeling of satisfaction and well-being from undergoing plastic surgery. While poets argue that “beauty vanishes, beauty passes,” the pleasure that people take in their own improved physical appearance may not actually fade so readily.
A 1986 article surveyed research between 1960 and 1982 and found that the vast majority of patients were satisfied with the results of their surgery, and that this feeling remained constant over time—in contrast with how people tend to become dissatisfied with new material possessions. Another study, based on 130 Norwegian women who were interviewed before undergoing surgery and five years later, had similar results. The women tended to be more satisfied with their appearance after surgery—both with the body part that was operated on and with their appearance overall. The researchers also noticed a small increase in the women’s self-esteem.
And in 2013, the world’s largest study of its type checked in with 544 first-time plastic-surgery patients three, six, and 12 months after surgery. They then compared the patients with 264 people who had considered cosmetic surgery but decided against it. When researchers compared the plastic surgery patients with those who had decided against having a procedure, they found that the ones who underwent surgery were less anxious, felt healthier, had developed greater self-esteem, and reported higher rates of life satisfaction and well-being. They also found their bodies more attractive.
This is not to say that plastic surgery is a cure-all. Both the Norwegian study and a later American study found that patients with existing psychological problems and unrealistic expectations about their surgery tended to be dissatisfied with the results.
Why would people adapt to a larger income but not to an improved physical appearance? Perhaps this is an indication that our sense of self is more closely tied to outward appearance than it is to the size of our bank balance. Feeling better about how you look and, presumably, having that feeling reinforced by others, may carry a personal meaning that a financial windfall doesn’t match.
Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., is the author of Why Music Moves Us. She lives in Toronto, Canada.