Everyone wants to be happy but understanding what happiness really means can be tough. By definition, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being determined by positive emotions or pleasant feelings ranging from intense joy to a strong sense of contentment or satisfaction. It is also important to take note of the fact that happiness has environmental and biological basis. Thus, by default, any pursuit aimed at achieving or at least understanding this emotional state is challenging because of these underpinnings.
But a new psychology-based theory offers a simple albeit thorough understanding of the definition and nature of happiness. Identified and explored further by Kennon M. Sheldon, PhD, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and an established researcher in positive psychology, the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model is an approach to understanding and achieving happiness or satisfactory life.
The model has several premises and predictions. As a derivative of the established concept of hedonic adaptation, the model reinforces the fact that people often adapt or get used to a particular event, situation, or stimuli that stirs emotional responses. Hedonic adaptation essentially illustrates why people experience a gain or loss in well-being after prolonged exposure to positive or negative stimuli.
To further demonstrate the concept of hedonic adaption, imagine being in a new relationship. The first one to two years often brings forth profound happiness and excitement. After some time, the euphoric feeling fades because of too much familiarity to routines. Some couples end up being too comfortable with one another while others tend to neglect the importance of sustaining the relationship. This is also true with new job or meeting a new set of friends.
It is important to also note the fact that hedonic adaptation occurs in both positive and negative events or situations and that this phenomenon has evolutionary functions. Accordingly, positive or negative stimuli leave an individual too focused to the intense emotion thus rendering him or her unable to function. In addition, high arousal can be psychologically harmful if experienced chronically and the body naturally adapts through disassociation in order to reduce susceptibility to stress-related illnesses.
In focusing on the subject of happiness, Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky further tested another predictions of the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model in a three-month, three-wave longitudinal study of 481 students. The results revealed that the model indeed specifies two routes by which the positive or well-being gains derived from a positive life change are eroded. The first involves a bottom-up process in which positive emotions from positive life change decline over time. Essentially, an individual becomes too accustomed to the positive stimuli, thus taking it for granted or considering it as the new standard or new normal.
The second route involves a top-down process in which an individual increases aspirations for achieving positive life change in order to sustain or improve positive emotions. As an individual becomes more accustomed to the positive stimuli, he or she will begin to seek for novelty or demand more from the stimuli in order to sustain the same level of happiness.
Although the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model supports the concepts of hedonic adaptation, it actually provides guidelines in order to gear away from the inevitable adaptive tendencies of individuals and thus, sustain happiness.
A key takeaway from the study of Sheldon and Lyubomirsky is a suggestion that people should optimise positive stimuli to slow down the process involved in hedonic adaptation. Furthermore, the study also revealed that rising aspirations often result in lower well-being, thus suggesting that this route should be minimised in order to impede hedonic adaptation to positive stimuli.
Other researchers have also explored the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model. For example, Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth W. Dunn specifically identified a strategy for combatting hedonic adaptation. In their study that involved determining satisfaction from chocolate consumption, they found out that individuals who previously abstained from consuming chocolates had significantly enjoyed the food than those individuals who were never subjected under a period of abstinence or those individuals who were never given special consumption or abstinence instructions. This result provided the first evidence that temporarily giving up something pleasurable may provide an effective route to happiness. In addition, it could explain why some cultures and religions have incorporated the concept of abstinence from their cultural or doctrinal practices.
Another two-part study by Sheldon and Yuna L. Ferguson also illustrated the application of Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model in boosting happiness or improving the well-being of individuals, particularly by demonstrating how listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier.
The first part demonstrated that participants assigned to try to boost their mood while listening to 12 minute of music reported higher positive mood compared to participants who simply listened to music without attempting to alter mood. However, this effect was qualified by the predicted interaction: the music had to be positively valenced.
On the other hand, the second part demonstrated that participants who were instructed to intentionally try to become happier versus those who did not try reported higher increases in subjective happiness after listening to positively valenced music during five separate lab visits over a two-week period.
From the aforementioned discussion and the cited studies, the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model offers an interesting insight about the nature of happiness and human goals and desires. In a way, most people associate happiness with personal and/or professional achievements. But the concept of hedonic adaptation argues that while accomplishment can bring forth happiness, the positive emotional state is temporarily. The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model however suggests that happiness should not be associated with end goals.
Studies revealed that individuals can sustain happiness as long as they keep having or optimising their positive experiences while avoiding wanting too much. Furthermore, studies also suggest that individuals have the capacity to make mental changes leading to new positive experiences. Thus, rather than getting hung up on the destination, people should focus more on enjoying their experience of the journey. As the proverbial goes, happiness is found not in finishing something but in doing it.
Further details of the study of Sheldon and Lyubomirsky are in the article “The challenge of staying happier: Testing the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model” published in May 2012 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology.
More details of the study of Quoidbach and Dunn are in the article “Give it up: A strategy for combatting hedonic adaptation” published in September 2013 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Further details of the study of Sheldon and Ferguson are in the article “Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies” published in June 2012 in The Journal of Positive Psychology.