Negative Visualization Is the Antidote to Hedonic Adaptation
happiness fuels success - and stoic negative visualization helps

Why Negative Visualization Is the Antidote to Hedonic Adaptation

Have you ever bought something you really wanted?

How do you feel about it now?

In many cases, joy has faded away quickly…

I remember the remote controlled monster truck I once wanted at all costs. I used it maybe four times. It got boring. I didn’t appreciate it anymore after a while. Finally, I was happy to get rid of it. My younger cousin happily took it.

This was not a unique case. It’s happened to me hundreds of times. And it’s happening to most people. Chances are high you’ve experienced it, too. Actually, it’s a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation and we all fall prey to it.

We adapt quickly to what’s new. And even if things seem so shiny when we desire them, once we have them, we take them for granted, get bored with them, and want something else. Something better, bigger, or shinier.

The sad truth is, we won’t get happy this way. We’ll always adapt and want something new or some change with the belief it’ll elevate our happiness state.

It won’t. Luckily, the Stoic exercise negative visualization can help.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Our Happiness Formula Is Completely Wrong

Sorry to tell you, but we’ve grown up with the wrong happiness formula burned in our minds.

Our idea of happiness has long been like this: If I do great work, then I’ll become more successful, and then I’ll be happier.

The Happiness Formula is Broken - negative visualization can fix it
  • Study hard --> Straight A’s (or just pass) --> Be happy!
  • Work overtime --> Get promoted --> Be happy!

Well, it does not work like this.

The model is broken.

We do great work, have bigger successes, but instead of becoming happier, we just set new goals. With this formula, we’ll never get to happiness, as it keeps getting pushed further away.

I bet you’ve observed this in your own life. I remember when I studied for my university exams. The goal wasn’t to get straight A’s, my goal was to pass all the exams with a minimum of learning time invested.

So I had 10 exams within two weeks. And I thought that once I’m done, I’ll feel great, I’ll be happy.

But I wasn’t. I entered some form of emptiness. The exams had been written, and I’ve had pretty good feelings over the results, but I felt empty instead of happy.

Sure, I was glad it was over, but I missed the great happy feelings. So I sat there, without the expected feelings, and didn’t know what to do.

Long story short, I should have known long ago that reaching goals alone won’t make you happy. There will be new goals, as I said to myself, “This is nothing. You’ve achieved nothing. First, you need to finish your degree and then you can be happy.”

Point is: The whole formula is broken.

So is there a formula that works?

Yes. The science of happiness tells us that it looks something like this: Be happy first, then you’ll do great work, and become more successful.

happiness fuels success - and stoic negative visualization helps

We need to be happy first.

The reason for this is that a happy brain is a more positive brain and a more positive brain has a ton of advantages such as higher intelligence, increased creativity, and fuller energy tanks.

Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

Hear it yourself from happiness researcher Shawn Achor in this short video:

So we need to be happier first with what we have right now, and only then will we be more successful (and happier of course).

Before we look at a smart way to get there, we look at why we won’t get happier just by achieving our goals and getting what we want.

(If you want to learn more about the happiness formula and the science of happiness, check out our article How to Be Happy.)

Hedonic Adaptation – Why We Don’t Get Happy by Getting What We Want

What is hedonic adaptation?

It’s the phenomenon that when we fulfill some of our desires, we won’t be happier for a long time.

When we get the promotion – something we want – we won’t be happier than before for a long time. After a few weeks we’ll have adapted to the new situation and our happiness level will be where it was before the promotion. Our joy will fade away quickly.

Hedonic adaptation graph

Look around yourself, do you see anything you once bought/earned/won and thought this would make you happier? That wide-screen TV, your Bachelor’s degree, or the employee of the month medal? Chances are high that you have adapted. You take those things for granted now and probably long for a wider-and-curved-screen TV, the Master’s degree, or another job.

What about winning the lottery? Will that make you happier for a long time?

Or becoming paraplegic? Will that make you less happy for a long time?

Nope, as author Marci Shimoff explains in her book Happy for No Reason:

“There was a famous study conducted that tracked people who’d won the lottery—what many people think of as the ticket to the magic kingdom of joy. Within a year, these lucky winners returned to approximately the same level of happiness they’d experienced before their windfall. Surprisingly, the same was true for people who became paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they also returned to their original happiness level.”

Even such extreme events do not change our state of happiness for more than a year.

You see, no matter what happens to us, we’re likely to adapt to it pretty quickly.

Because of that adaptation process, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle:

We desire something, work hard to earn it, and once we have it we’ll adapt and be as dissatisfied as before. And then we’ll desire something else, or simply more of it, work hard to get it, and again, once we have it we’ll adapt quickly, our joy will fade away and we’ll start at zero all over again.

vicious cycle of hedonic adaptation beaten by negative visualization

One key to happiness, then, is to prevent this vicious cycle of hedonic adaptation to start rolling. We need something that helps us appreciate what we already have, be grateful for the things we’ve accomplished, and be happier now.

Remember, happiness fuels success, so we want to be happy first.

And the Stoics used a tool that can help us with exactly that: Negative Visualization.

Negative Visualization as an Antidote to Hedonic Adaptation

Here’s what negative visualization is in a nutshell:

Imagine possible bad scenarios as vividly as possible. Think about what could go wrong on your way to work. Ask yourself how you’d feel if you’d lose all your possessions. What if your mum died? What if your car got stolen? What if you needed to live without TV, internet, running water, or your girlfriend?

Basically, negative visualization is imagining what misfortunes could strike in your life. Try to imagine those things as if they were happening right now.

(Learn more about negative visualization here.)

So how can this exercise help with hedonic adaptation?

Quite simply: By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it. We can regain the joy about something, and we’ll remember why we desired that exact thing some time ago. We wouldn’t take everything for granted anymore.

With this simple exercise we can regain our appreciation for our spouse, our joy for our car, and our value for the place we live in.

Negative visualization lets us embrace whatever life we’re living and extract every bit of delight from it.

It becomes more important what we make of what we have than what we have in the first place.

The goal is basically to want what we already have. We need to desire the things we happen to have in our lives. If we desire what we have, we want nothing else, and we’re happy.

Simple in theory, right?

Get this statement from one of the greatest soccer players of all time, Zinédine Zidane:

“I once cried because I had no shoes to play football with my friends, but one day I saw a man who had no feet, and I realized how rich I was.”

What we have might not be that bad.

In fact, what we have might be all we need. Or… all we want.

So negative visualization can help us embrace what we have no matter what we have in the first place.

Putting the Pieces Together:
The Wrong Happiness Formula Gets Us Caught Up in the Vicious Hedonic Cycle and Can Be Broken by Negative Visualization

Let’s put the pieces together.

1. We have a broken happiness formula.

Great work might lead to bigger success, but it won’t make us happy. It will only lead to new goals and push happiness further away. Instead, we need to be happy first. If we seek happiness through success and material possessions, we’ll end up in the vicious hedonic cycle.

2. We get caught up in the vicious hedonic cycle.

We adapt to bigger successes and fancier lifestyles quickly and will seek more and more to satisfy our desires. We need to break that cycle by appreciating what we already have.

3. We stop the cycle by thinking negatively.

Negative visualization can break the vicious hedonic cycle. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have we get to embrace what we have. We learn to want what we already have and regain our appreciation for those things.

We learn to be happy first.

And if we can do that, we can maximize our brain’s potential, and obviously be happier in the now. (As learned in the video above.)

So it’s not really what happens to us and what we have, but how we deal with what happens and what we do with what we have that’s important.

Before we finish off, let’s look at a wonderful statement from a man who’s spent a large part of his life with researching happiness, Shawn Achor (the guy from the video):

“It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes reality.”

Now don’t jump off. Take 3 minutes to reap some benefits of what’s written in this article.

Here’s what to do:

Choose one of those questions.

How would I feel if…

  • I had no celly?
  • I just lost my job?
  • I had only bread and water to eat and drink?
  • I had no place to stay?
  • I had lost my right arm in an accident?
  • My best friend died?

If you have chosen one, then lean back, close your eyes, ask yourself the question, and let your imagination do the rest: Focus, and think as if it’s happening right now.

(Just do the exercise.)

Jonas Salzgeber

What's up? My name's Jonas. I'm Swiss (not Swedish). I'm a life enthusiast and I'm curious about everything that gives me an advantage, boost, level upgrade... "That drink will make me unbeatable? I'll down it!" Haha. My motto? Go to bed a little wiser every day & be the best version of yourself.

  • Sarah Cummings says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing the tips. I really appreciate how you explain the formula to become happy. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Manikandan says:

    Thank you for the great message.

  • Diane S Gordon says:

    Good advice! When I get unhappy about having to lose weight, I remind myself of how many thousands of people starve to death in this world every day.

  • Lee gruber says:

    I think if you are happy first it will be easier to see
    what you want that will contribute more to better selective ‘

  • Wow, That was some good stuff. I love they way you explained everything. This is one of the best articles I’ve read.
    Hey @Diana S Gordon. This has happened to me too.

  • Ashley says:

    Great article, I have fallen into this trap many times in my life. I now run a financial planning lifestyle business and Stoicism is actually helping me deliver great advice to my clients. I want to create a great lifestyle for myself and find more joy in my life and learning about Stoicism is definitely helping me in my journey. Thank you and keep up the good work.

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