Rousseau – Hedonic Adaptation


Life is short. Not because of its short duration, but rather because of this short period there is not enough left to enjoy it.

J.-J. Rousseau

“When was the last time I felt really happy?“ – When wondering about this question most of us think of a certain experience: the day we met our partner for the first time, the last pay raise, the moment we drove our brand-new car. It is the same for many, if we ask ourselves when we expect to be happy again. For children this may be this one and special birthday present they long for, for adults it may be the next promotion they have been aiming at for so long. Most of us are chasing after certain events hoping to be happy again. But what’s with the time between? How is our answer, if asked: “Am I happy now?”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author and philosopher, not only was an important pioneer for the French Revolution, but with his ethical basic position revealed ways still took up by behavioral scientists and psychologists when investigating the question what can make us truly and permanently happy: Instead of establishing general rules, he showed what interest an individual has in acting in the sense of community.

The phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation

Most people have a certain objective in mind and are working hard to achieve it finally. When we reach this goal, this leads to an increase in our perception of satisfaction. We feel happy – unfortunately however, only temporary. Ultimately we find ourselves back in the initial situation and are as happy (or unhappy) as before. This quickly leads us to aim for the next goal: Again, we spend a lot of time and energy to reach it in the hope to experience a new moment of happiness.

Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon „hedonic adaptation“ and it actually has its advantages. On the one hand, it encourages us to set ever new targets, to make progress and to explore new things. On the other, with negative experiences it works as self-healing mechanism. Because after setbacks and disappointments, we sooner or later find ourselves in the initial situation as well and learn to get over negative events.

This explains why alas, we accustom to positive experiences, too; why after a short period in which we perceive it so intensely, happiness disappears.

The Struggle against habituation

If “hedonic adaptation“ is a fully natural and party beneficial mechanism, does this mean we are helplessly exposed to it? Can’t we ever raise our satisfaction lastingly?

Yes and no.

Natural processes will always have their effects on us, will influence our thought, actions, and feelings. If we don’t actively oppose them, we are exposed to them, indeed. However, they can impose their greatest impact when they work in completely unconscious minds. This in turn gives us a chance to oppose them: The first step is to live more consciously.

If we take positive events or twists of fate for granted, we won’t be able to appreciate them. If we let others determine our goals, e.g. if we strive for more income or recognition instead of being led by our own curiosity or self-respect, neither the achievement nor the way to it will make us happy. Heading for the next goal leads us to miss the many daily opportunities to act in the sense of community, as Rousseau proposed. Put simply: We miss the options to give small moments of happiness to others. When was the last time we gave our seat to someone else in the subway? When did we offer help without being asked? When did we provide our partners with a bit of happiness without there being a special occasion?

In all action and striving it is the little things which make a difference. They don’t cost any money, however, mindfulness, rethinking, and change of behavior patterns often cost a lot of effort. The reward though is priceless: We will enjoy our time.


Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. in: Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. D. Kahneman, E. Diener, N. Schwarz (Eds.). New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation, xii, 593 pp.

Papies, E. K., Barsalou, L. W., & Custers, R. (2012). Mindful attention prevents mindless impulses. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(3), 291-299.

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