Negative Visualization vs Hedonic Adaptation (How to Avoid The Satisfaction Treadmill)

Issue #4 of Rinaldo's weekly newsletter

Hello friends,

Any thoughtful person will periodically contemplate the bad things that can happen to him. The obvious reason for doing this is to prevent those things from happening.

But no matter how hard we try to prevent bad things from happening to us, some will happen anyway. So if we think about the bad things that can happen to us, we will lessen their impact on us when, despite our efforts at prevention, they happen:

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”

-Seneca

Misfortune weighs most heavily, Seneca says, on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.” Epictetus echoes this advice: We should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.”

If we fail to recognize this and instead go around assuming that we will always be able to enjoy the things we value, we will likely find ourselves subject to considerable distress when the things we value are taken from us.

Humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation.

To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, the way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted.

We also experience hedonic adaptation in our relationships. We start out in a state of bliss, but before long we find ourselves contemplating our significant other flaws and, not long after that, fantasizing about starting a relationship with someone new.

As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill. They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them. They work hard to fulfill this desire, in the belief that on fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction.

The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a result stop desiring it—or at any rate, don’t find it as desirable as they once did. They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.

One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.

This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. In other words, we need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have.

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our significant other has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our significant other, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

This technique called negative visualization is the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.

Seneca advises:

“We should live as if this very moment were our last.”

To the Stoics, living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique: As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.

But they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead, they want us, as we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today.

Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus Aurelius says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours.

One might imagine that the Stoics because they go around contemplating worst-case scenarios, would tend toward pessimism. But interestingly enough, the regular practice of negative visualization has the effect of transforming Stoics into full-blown optimists.

Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation.

There are people who seem proud of their inability to take delight in the world around them. They have somehow gotten the idea that by refusing to take delight in the world, they are demonstrating their emotional maturity.

What is really foolish is to spend your life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within your grasp, if only you will change your mental outlook.

Have a great week!

-Rinaldo Ugrina