It’s confession time. I have an addiction. I don’t remember exactly when it started. I don’t remember how I got hooked. I just know that I have a problem. I love watches. That’s right, watches, those things that told us the time before we had cell phones. My problem is so bad it’s a joke around the house. If I’m idly surfing the Web, my wife, Tracy, asks “Are you looking at watches again?” I’m pretty sure there’s a mental eye-roll accompanying the question.
You would think that having two or three watches would be enough, a dressy watch, a “beater” watch and maybe a nice casual watch for the weekend. My current watch count is somewhere north of a dozen. Why would a rational cheapskate such as myself own some many watches? When I get a new watch, it’s a wonderful thing, I excitedly tear into the box, pull out the watch, admire its beauty, take great pleasure setting the time. Then the moment comes, I put the new beauty on my wrist (while Tracy does a non-mental eye-roll at the spectacle). Then for the next few weeks, the new watch barely leaves my wrist. I admire it, show it off to unfortunate souls who cross my path and generally bask in its glory. (You have to admit, that’s a lot of pleasure to get from a wristwatch. It’s amazingly similar to how my pup, Maggie, views rawhide chips.)
But then something happens. The new watch loses its luster. Sure, it’s still nice, but I don’t get that much enjoyment out of it anymore. The funny thing, the watch hasn’t changed, my opinion of it has. There’s actually a name for this phenomenon, hedonic adaptation, which is a process by which we become used to a stimulus, which leads to the emotional effects of that stimulus lessening over time. As we get used to new things, they bring us less pleasure. The new watch still gleams in the light, but it seems less shiny to us. We’re all subject to this; I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life. It might be a new car, television or a new job.
Two aspects of hedonic adaptation stand out. First, if we don’t control it, we may doom ourselves to a never-ending cycle of brief joy, followed by an odd dissatisfaction and a search for the next shiny thing; this is called the hedonic treadmill. (Consumerism kind of relies on this cycle.) Second, it is our opinion that changes, not the former subject of our affection. For example, the watch I’m wearing right now looks pretty much as nice as when I first put it on my wrist. It’s still nice; I just don’t get as much pleasure from it.
So, what can we do to jump off the hedonic treadmill? Fortunately, those ancient friends of ours, the Stoics, can help (no surprise for long-time readers). The key is in the second point above, it’s our opinion that changed, not the thing itself. William Irvine, in his book, “A Guide to the Good Life,” points out that the Stoic technique of negative visualization can forestall hedonic adaptation. The technique involves imagining what life would be like without the thing, which helps you better appreciate it. This takes some practice, but it works. Essentially, imagining yourself without the thing shifts your opinion from “meh” to “wow” and the shine is magically restored. I experienced this in a tangible way recently. For a long time, one of my favorite watches was one I received as a gift upon defending my doctoral dissertation. After about 10 years, the watch stopped. I sent the watch to a repair center for a refurbishment. Unfortunately, not long after getting the watch back, it quit working again. Not long ago, I ran across the watch and in the finest tradition of manhood, I began playing with various buttons to see what happened. To my amazement, the watch started running again. The effect was like buying a brand new watch. I wore it almost constantly, often staring at it in appreciation. It seems to me that actually being without the watch for a long time reversed the hedonic adaptation process.
Hedonic adaptation may also affect our work lives. The excitement of a new job wears off, what once was exciting and new is now familiar and tedious. Negative visualization may help with this situation, but I offer another approach, refocusing attention on the aspects of the job that excited us in the first place. For example, one of the best parts of my job is interacting with students. If I start to derive less happiness from my job, I can focus more attention on my time with students (even if I don’t actually get to spend more time with them). Combining the attention idea with negative visualization may be particularly effective. When performing negative visualization, focus on what life would be without the enjoyable aspects of a thing (job, watch or whatever). So, if you find yourself not enjoying what you used to enjoy, try imagining life without it. You may find it shiny and new again. FBN
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D., is the dean of the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University.
The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.