Hedonic Adaptation

Paintings over table in PhillyMy reflections here were prompted by an article in today’s New York Times entitled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The article, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is about how the euphoria associated with the first phase of romantic relationships tends to wear off relatively quickly. I’d initially planned to write a piece on relationships, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the problem Lyubomirsky describes isn’t restricted to relationships. Lyubomirsky charges that romantic relationships are subject to the same dynamic of what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” as are other thrilling experiences. That is, euphoria, she observes, tends to be short lived, whether it is associated with “a new job, a new home, a new coat,” or a new love.

The first thing that annoyed me about the article was its purely speculative character, or more correctly, the fact that it was mere speculation paraded in front of the reader as scientific fact. “[A]lthough we may not realize it,” asserts Lyubomirsky, “we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.” Says who? Where is the scientific evidence to support such a claim? We like variety in some things, to be sure, but we like uniformity in others. We appear, in fact, to crave uniformity at least as much as we crave variety. We need, for example, to be able to assume that the future will resemble the past in crucial respects if we are going to be able to function at all and are notorious for being unable to appreciate variety when the variety in question would tend to discredit the worldview to which we have become comfortably wedded.

My point is not that Lyubomirsky is mistaken, or that she has no right to indulge in such speculations. My point is that they are speculations and should not be presented as if they were facts. One reader, Joseph Badler, made the point beautifully. “The ‘we are biologically hardwired’” he wrote, “is just too cheap. It can be used to justify anything. Evo psych post-hoc explanations are making everybody intellectually lazy.”

“Evo psych” refers to evolutionary psychology, which, if you ask me, is a completely bogus discipline that purports to provide evolutionary explanations for traits of human psychology. Why do people appear to crave variety in their sexual partners? Well, the evolutionary psychologist responds (and here I am paraphrasing Lyubomirsky) , because it guarantees a more robust gene pool. That makes sense, of course, but so does the observation that infidelity can be corrosive of social bonds and that promiscuity could thus threaten both the immediate family and the long-term survival of the entire community.

So which is it? Are people hard-wired to crave variety to ensure a more robust gene pool, or are they hard-wired to crave uniformity to be better able to survive to the age of reproduction? Or could they be hard-wired, as seems the most likely, to crave both things relative to particular environments and situations? But if this is the case, then evolutionary “explanations” for psychological traits are obviously speculative because of the seemingly limitless variables one would have to take into account when calculating in what sense natural selection might lie behind a particular psychological tendency.

The situation of the evolutionary psychologist becomes almost unmanageably complex even if we assume that all human beings exhibit the same psychological tendencies. Once we acknowledge that all human beings do not exhibit the same psychological tendencies, then evolutionary psychology, becomes, I would argue, a mere parody of an academic discipline. That is, I’d go further even than Badler. I don’t think it’s simply making people intellectually lazy. I think it’s making them stupid. That it continues to be respected as an academic discipline suggests that the academy is egalitarian to a fault in that even the criterion that one ought to be able to think clearly in order to be admitted to it appears to have been judged unfairly discriminatory.

A number of readers took exception to the comparison of a new love with new material possessions such as a “home” or “coat.” (I almost always enjoy reading the comments readers post to articles such as this one. They confirm my faith that the average person is neither so simple minded nor so superficial as the authors of the articles appear to assume). “Didn’t know love was material,” observes Anna from Ontario wryly.

It’s true that our relationships with people are importantly different from our relationships with things. They may not be so different, though, as some of the opponents of Lyubomirsky’s apparent materialism assume. Another reader points out that Lyubomirsky and those who agree with her “do not consider how the disposable and planned obsolescent qualities of consumer capitalism also ‘program’ us to always desire the new.”

I wouldn’t put all the fault, though, on consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism, after all, is an expression of something in human nature. Unfortunately, it is the expression, I would argue, of one of the less appealing tendencies in human nature–impatience.

The thrill of the new is something with respect to which we are largely, if not entirely, passive. It wears off though. To continue to be thrilled by the same thing requires diligent effort. The problem with consumer capitalism is that what it parades for our approval is primarily the cheap and tawdry, things that glitter but which are not gold. Such things thrill us before we are fully aware of what they are. Once we learn what they are, they cease to thrill because there is nothing inherently thrilling about them.

Of course even things that are inherently valuable and which thus ought to be inherently thrilling are subject to the same dialectic. We are thrilled with the initial acquisition of them, but that thrill eventually wears off, or at least quiets down. It doesn’t take a great deal of intellectual effort, however, to appreciate that the thrill that dies down in this way is the thrill of acquisition rather than of possession. We are thrilled to have acquired a thing, but then we get used to having it. If it is truly something worth having, though, and we are capable of appreciating it as such, then the initial euphoria of acquisition should be replaced by the more enduring thrill of possession, or more correctly, of appreciation. The problem is, such appreciation requires effort. It requires that we look at the thing again, look at it long and carefully, that we actively search for what is good and valuable in it, rather than simply surrender ourselves to a passive thrill.

Years ago, when I first became engaged, my sister caught me admiring my engagement ring. “You’ll stop doing that after a while,” she said. I found that remark disturbing. I didn’t want to cease to see my ring as beautiful any more than I wanted to cease to love the man who had given it to me. It will happen to you though, her words suggested, independently of what you want. It will happen to you. Kierkegaard talks about that dynamic in the first volume of his two-volume work Either-Or. Everything disappoints, he, or at least one of his pseudonyms, says there.

But does everything have to disappoint? I have never ceased to see my engagement ring as beautiful, just as I have never ceased to love the man who gave it to me. I’m a very materialistic person, in a way. I have lots of things, lots of nice things in which I take enormous pleasure that does not diminish with time. I collect paintings and fountain pens and antiques of various sorts, and each one of these possessions adds immeasurably to the quality of my life.

I love to sit at my table in the morning and sip my coffee (I love coffee!) and look at the two paintings I’ve hung on the wall on the far side of the table. One is a landscape I found in an antique store and the other is a still life I did myself. They are not great masterpieces, but they are very nice and I derive enormous pleasure from looking at them. I look at them in the morning when I am having my coffee and in the evening when I am having dinner. I often work at that table in the afternoon and I’ll glance admiringly up at them periodically even then.

I don’t know what it is exactly that I like so much about them. Each is rough, and yet each is the product of some person’s vision. I like people. They are endlessly fascinating to me. I love handiwork because you can see the humanity in it. I like things because I like creation. I value it as something beautiful and moving. One reader of Lyubomirsky’s article observed that the reason her marriage had been happy until her husband’s death was that they had “had God.” Another reader pointed out, however, that that approach to keeping love alive won’t work for everyone because not everyone is religious. He (she?) went on to point out, however, that “looking beyond oneself and working toward the greater good (of one’s spouse, family, community, world) may be an essential element in the pursuit of lifelong happiness.” I’d agree with that. I’d argue, however, that unless you think that creation, or the universe, or whatever, is good, then even the “greater good” of one’s spouse, family, community, and even the world, will ultimately fall flat.

The challenge, I’d argue, to achieving an enduring happiness is that we’ve programmed ourselves, in a sense, to believe that happiness is inherently fleeting. That the thrill of acquisition is the only thrill there is. Whether that is the fault of consumer capitalism alone or whether it is an expression of something inherent in human nature, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

14 responses

  1. I’m not a great fan of psychology. All sciences model something and then study the model rather than the something, but psychology seems two or more steps removed.

    I see points in common here with your article on on the guy who wrote on favoritism and against fairness, citing the ‘naturalness’ of it all.

    I do believe in inherited behavior. Ants have it, right? Bees? Dogs? Humans?

    I think, sure we do. Inheritance is in our genes and evolution and genes are stongly linked.

    Favoritism is in our genes … Mr anti-fairness said. I think there’s something to that. That it has something to do with evolution.

    We seem prone to form groups … just so we can be loyal to them. Sports teams, for instance The Elks. It’s easy to think of lots of such groups.

    Maybe long, long ago, when we were few and relatively less powerful, group cohesion was what … eventually allowed us to evolve our linguistic skills and leave the rest behind.

    But there was a really long time when unthinking loyalty … we think in ‘words’, right? … reigned supreme, got into our genes. And remains.

    It often seems that in-group/out-group behavior is at or close to the root of all our problems now, a million years later.

    Just because it’s in our genes doesn’t mean we’re defined by it. It’s a genetic appendage. Like an appendix. I’m not advocating genetic appendectomy, I’m just advocating realizing their are layers to our onion and working in the upper, weaker layers, to make them more powerful, and so to gain control of ourselves.

    I’m not a philosopher, I’m just another bozo on the bus, I’m fond of saying, but I enjoy reading your stuff. Thanks for sending news of your new blog.

    • You are not a bozo at all. I agree with pretty much everything you say. Except I’m not longer certain that all thought is in words. Yeah, I think there’s a connection here with that earlier piece on favoritism. We’re “hard wired,” if you want to use that expression, to have all sorts of tendencies, but we’re not completely determined by our “wiring.”

      Thanks for saying those nice things about my writing!

      • Thinking about thinking without words, and the recent spate of evolutionary ‘dousing’ … I remembered a talk given by Noam Chomsky at the University of Arizona last year


        It’s an hour and forty-five minute video … I love every minute, but if you haven’t got time and/or like to read the arguments there’s pdf there too. The man’s thought a bit about it and has informed opinions, a you might expect 🙂 Probably you’ve seen it already, and read it too.

  2. I don’t know about ‘all’ thought being words either. I should quote the ‘know’ too, of course. I should quote everything. I am definitely a bozo. Or am trying to have a sense of humor about it all, and I remember an old Firesign Theatre sketch about a clown convention that was amusing, and I’m trying to emphasize the relatively minimal, essential variation among us all at the same time. Vive la difference to be sure. And I’d say ‘soft wired’ rather than ‘hard wired’ … genes are chemicals and chemicals come in molecules and are small and so their are lots of them, molecules I mean, so we’re talking populations … as we are when we’re talking humans, too … so there’s probability and uncertainty involved in our … electro-chemical schemata?

    I am kinda interested in an ethics derived from aesthetics, although since I’m not a philosopher my idea of what those terms mean might not be … probably is not .. the same as yours. According to my conception of aesthetics … it’s all value judgements, just like ethics, but ‘there’s no accounting for taste’, as they say, and people never say that about ethics. People have ‘just’ wars. Wikipedia says that John Dewey … I don’t know if derived is the right word … but tied the one to the other. I couldn’t find an bittorrent of his Ethics.

    I remember, long ago, loosing interest in philosphy when it seemed to be about language … but then one day later … in the 1980s I got a flyer from Oxford University Press with a ‘special’ on a two-volume edition of essays by a guy named Richard Rorty. Whom I thought was a philosopher when I read ’em, but maybe he was really a sociologist … or just being cagey. Anyway he mentioned John Dewey a lot.

    The theme that ran through all the essays was ‘anti-representationalism’, the idea that you can have more than one system of thought built around the same field of inquiry … if you give up insisting on a representation of what is ‘really’ out there … no problems.

    Very helpful, really because you acknowledge from the beginning that what you’re talking about is a reduced abstraction of ‘the world’ and not the ‘real thing’. Which, amazingly, people often seem to forget.

    Anyway, that kind of thinking seems to lead to aesthetics … why do I prefer this aspect of this description to that one? I think that would help.

    I think defensive tribalistic behaviour is ugly when compared to identifying with as large a segment of the human race as you can manage. And not play favorites.

    Sorry to run on so much … but it’s not like I’m wasting paper, right? It’s easy to say nice things about your writing. Thainks for taking the time to do it. You write about stuff that I don’t see elsewhere … in my relatively small circle of reference.

  3. I’d argue, to achieving an enduring happiness is that we’ve programmed ourselves, in a sense, to believe that happiness is inherently fleeting. That the thrill of acquisition is the only thrill there is.

    Now that I’m getting older I’ve come to more truly realize that this being is going to cease functioning, and so the conciousness that comes along with it will cease along with it. So everyday is a wonderful thing especially as if resembles all the other days I know of. It’s got me in it.

    Soon enough there will be no more thrilling birds in the trees or flowers or cool shade. As far as I’m concerned. I used to tell myself when I was unhappy not to worry, that pretty soon I was gonna be dead, as John Lennon used to sing. And that’s true. The people in Thailand are Buddhists and the Buddha focused on suffering, not on happiness. He seemed to think that was the problem. If we could get over the suffering what would be left would be happiness. Sort of by definition. Having rid oneself of the defects that resulted in suffering there would be nothing left to interfere with life lived directly as we are each so uniquely well-equipped to do. So that it’s not be addition, by acquisition, that we achieve happiness, but by subtraction. That’s not very marketable in a consumer society. Pyschology is marketing.

    All the sciences are for sale these days, just as everything else is. The people who do the tests of drugs for big pharma are contractually disallowed from releasing the data they amass under contract to those companies who ‘own’ their data. Same thing is true with the people who are supposedly looking after the exploits of, Monsanto for instance. They were not ‘allowed’ to point out that glyphosate is in no sense ‘bio-degradable’, that it lies dormant in the soil in a slightly different form, one of the most potent and broadest spectrum herbicides that we ‘clever’ men have ever developed, for an indeterminate time. If the soil pH were to change ,,, for whatever reason …

    You can’t blame the scientists. Hey they gotta make a buck, too. It’s not a question of individual choice at that point, although there will be a few heroes … who will inspire us all. The individual choice is in choosing to work with others to change the system, regaining control, if we ever did have it, or instituting control if we never yet have.

    I’d argue, however, that unless you think that creation, or the universe, or whatever, is good, then even the “greater good” of one’s spouse, family, community, and even the world, will ultimately fall flat.

    I have trouble thinking of our present juggernaut of ‘cvilization’ as good. Try to fix it up, sure, but if we can’t … there are other planets out there surely. Things might be working out somewhere. It ‘makes me happy’ to think so. There may be others who have solved our sorts of organizational problems millions of years ago as well as others who simply failed to do so. I feel happy about the former, sad about the latter, and hope that my … or your … descendants … are … just are.

  4. I’m sorry I don’t have time for a detailed response to all your very thoughtful comments. I did want to recommend a book to you though. Have you read Rampton and Stauber’s Trust Us, We’re Experts? I think you’d find it very interesting.

    • ‘ “[A]lthough we may not realize it,” asserts Lyubomirsky, “we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.” ‘

      An interesting sidelight on things we “may not realize” about the types of “variety” we are not biologically, but otherwise certainly not ‘hard-‘ but otherwise “wired to crave” …


      ‘ Marketing commodities in ways that exploit the alienation of human beings in monopoly capitalist society is now a fine art. As early as 1933, sociologist Robert S. Lynd observed in a monograph entitled, “The People as Consumers,” written for the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends, that “advertising, branding, and style” changes were designed to take full advantage of the social insecurity and alienation brought on by changing economic conditions. Corporations looked on “job insecurity, monotony, loneliness, failure to marry, and other situations of tension” as opportunities for elevating “more and more commodities to the class of personality buffers. At each exposed point the alert merchandiser is ready with a panacea.” [52] The symbolic need that commodities thus attain in our society is crucial to what Juliet Schor has called “the materiality paradox,” i.e., the selling of material goods to satisfy needs that cannot in fact be met by material commodities. [53] Ironically, it is this inability to obtain satisfaction from these commodities that ensures capital a permanent market – as long as, we are constantly told, “satisfaction is guaranteed.” Marketing plays on these social vulnerabilities, creating an endless series of new wants, enhancing the overall wastefulness of the system. ‘

      Sorry if I seem to be verging on logorhea … I do think these observations by others are right to their various points and that you or perhaps others who visit your site might be interested in them. No response is necessary, of course, unless, in fact I have become just a p in the a … in which case let me know and I’ll quit 🙂

  5. I’m not surprised that you don’t have time to respond. No problem. I did find ‘Trust us … ‘ as a bittorrent and have so far read the part I …and looked at the rest to see it it continues in the same vein, which seems to do. Public relations and … ‘perception management’.

    It’s certainly important to realize that the world is full of more or less legal liars, in the best disguises they can come up with … that what passes for ‘news’ and ‘information’ consists to great degree of their spew.

    But what seems to me even more of a concern is the subornation of entire sciences/indutries like pharmaceutics and … environmental ‘pharmaceuticals’ … such as Monsanto, and duPont, and others make. Where the corporate deconstruction of regulation has ended up debasing and degrading the science itself … and all the scientists who want employment in those fields.

    And those are more or less ‘hard’ sciences. The degradation of the ‘soft’ sciences like psychology and philosophy … soft in terms of the grey-matter-only approach of the second and … just soft, in the first … that you’ve brought up in the article above and the other on fairness, while not (yet?) industry/science wide as in the ‘harder’ cases I cited, is nearly as worrying.

    I’ll get back to the book. I wish they hadn’t taken such a manipulative approach themselves with their chapter and section titles, I wish they hadn’t decided their steak needed more sizzle themslves. They seem to be ‘reformed’ practitioners of what they’re exposing. Their book seems to be in homage to its successful practitioners.

  6. The Bangladeshi garment factory fire that killed at least 112 workers on November 24 has given a glimpse into the murky and obscure relations between global retail giants such as Walmart and the thousands of unsafe sweatshops in Bangladesh and other poor countries that produce their products.

    After the fire, Walmart immediately sought to distance itself from the Tahzreen Fashions factory, in the Ashulia industrial zone north of the capital Dhaka. After its Faded Glory brand was discovered in the burnt-out factory, Walmart blamed its supplier, saying the company was not authorised to produce at Tahzreen Fashions.

    Documents found by the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity show that at least five of Walmart’s suppliers sourced goods from the Tahzreen Fashions factory at some time this year. In a telephone interview this week with Bloomberg, Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardiner admitted that there was a “period in 2012 where the factory was active,” though it was “de-authorised months before the fire.”

    Walmart and other transnational corporations are, of course, desperate to deny any responsibility, because a great deal is at stake. Entire corporate departments are devoted to “ethics”, designed to protect each company’s public relations image, head off potential legal action and ensure that profits do not suffer.

    Maybe I was wrong about whole soft sciences/industries not being suborned by corporate ‘requirements’. Maybe your referenced spokespesons for anti-fairness and whimsy are just exercising their arguments and will soon be attesting to the ‘ethical’ standards of Walmart et. al., a function of ‘our genes’, no doubt.

  7. The “purely speculative character” is rife among many disciplines in this neo-Darwinian age where so many compete for marketed space, and their ideas must fecundate or die. Sadly, the audience is largely uncritical, or worse, vehemently hostile to those who dare question the bald assertions. Hopefully, this present state doesn’t solidify into an accepted “neo-science.” So much is tolerated simply because it sells to undiscriminating buyers! Regarding the thrill of the new wearing off (the age-old curse of the unmitigated aesthetic life!) here’s SAK in “Sickness Unto Death”: “In the bottomless ocean of pleasure, I have sounded in vain for a spot to cast anchor. I have felt the almost irresistible power with which one pleasure drags another after it, the kind of adulterated enthusiasm which it is capable of producing, the boredom, the torment which follow.”

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