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This is why you’re never satisfied with your accomplishments, according to science

It’s a pesky little trait scientists call hedonic adaptation. And while it helps you stay hungry and survive, it can also be a recipe for burnout if you’re not careful.

This is why you’re never satisfied with your accomplishments, according to science
[Source photo: AaronAmat/iStock]
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Remember that big thing you achieved three months ago? Neither do I. The half-life on happiness feels awfully short these days, and as the years go on the ambition we had in our twenties becomes increasingly hard to channel. You set goals and chase after them…but what about all that time you spend in the Upside-Down trying to get there? Shouldn’t that be pleasurable, too?

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Don’t get me wrong, going after your career aspirations is a worthwhile pursuit, and doing so will continue to make you happier. In case you missed it, the wildly popular statistic about happiness topping out at a salary of $75,000 is often cited incorrectly. That research was more focused on changes in emotional well-being, not blanket happiness, and research published earlier this year from Wharton fellow Matt Killingsworth found instead that well-being continues to rise with income.

So you set insane goals and turn yourself inside-out to achieve them. You rack up gold stars, and yet, after a while, they don’t feel so shiny or special anymore. Closing the rings on your Apple Watch just doesn’t hit the way it used to. You’re resigned. You know it’s bad when watching reaction videos of reaction videos is acceptable . . . or perhaps that’s just me.

It will be if you let it. Whether you realize it or not, you’re on a demoralizing hamster wheel known as hedonic adaptation. As it turns out, you can’t outrun this survival mechanism but you can find ways to leverage it to your advantage.

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How hedonic adaptation leads to burnout

We’ve been grappling with the fleeting feelings of happiness for half a century now. Hedonic adaptation–originally coined the “hedonic treadmill” by Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell in the 1971 essay Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society–notes how the happiness spike that stems from achievement often fades quickly.

The good news about hedonic adaptation is that the principle goes both ways: Your buzz wears off over time, but so does the sinking feeling that comes from setbacks and disappointments. If you’re driven or ambitious, however, you probably know you’ve been on this treadmill for a while–and you’re starting to tire out. 

This isn’t to villainize goals—we like goals. Goals having easy-to-follow hygiene: writing them down makes it more likely they’ll happen, specific goals are better than general ones, and so on. There’s even evidence that goals shift how our brains operate and prioritize. This redirection is especially pronounced when our goals are highly emotional.

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To live a better life, hack your hedonistic tendencies

It’s hard to wag your finger disapprovingly at hedonic adaptation because ultimately this is how you’ve been wired for survival. Instead of trying to outsmart your neurochemistry, work with it by making these small adjustments.

Microdose your achievement highs

When big goals are few and far between, you’re more likely to focus on reaching the final destination and catching that next big endorphin wave. Smaller benchmarks not only make your goals easier to pace; they also even out your brain chemistry with small, incremental wins and feelings of accomplishment.

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Prioritize experiences over possessions

We know from research that purchasing an experience leads to more enduring happiness than purchasing a possession. But a study from Cornell found that this bias also applies to the anticipation of the upcoming purchase. As you plan ahead, remember that how you’ll treat yo’self when the job is done can actually shape your day-to-day motivation and productivity.

Make process more pleasurable

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Why simply accomplish something when you could also form a bionic new habit along the way? How you shape your behavior matters. Sheer willpower alone, albeit exhausting, could get you to the finish line. But if you can make your daily and weekly routines more automatic, you’ll have an easier time overcoming the inevitable cognitive dissonance that comes with habit change.

Often, the greatest challenge for ambitious professionals is to be willing to step off the hamster wheel long enough to examine what is and isn’t working. If you’re both accomplished and tired—which is a lot of people right now—consider taking a look at how you frame achievement in both your career and life. Make tweaks along the way to think less and you’ll not accomplish more, but have a damn good time doing it as well.


Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.

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