Hedonic adaptation, Amazon.com, negativity bias, and happiness.

“Hedonic adaptation” is a valuable psychological phenomenon that unfortunately, in some circumstances, can deaden happiness.

We’re very adaptable to our current situations, for good or for ill, so generally only shifts up or down from our “normal” experience get noticed. Hedonic adaptation is an advantage in difficult situations, but can be a disadvantage when it means that we cease to appreciate pleasant circumstances.

“Habit,” as Aldous Huxley explained, “converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.”

One way to combat hedonic adaptation is to cut back on a luxurious enjoyment. If you get a cinnamon dolce latte twice a week instead of every morning, it will feel like a real treat.

Another way is to make the effort to savor the luxurious enjoyment. Don’t just grab your cinnamon dolce latte and run. Anticipate how good it will taste, tell other people how much you enjoy it, mindfully enter into the experience of drinking it, instead of gulping it down without a thought.

I’ve noticed that certain luxurious enjoyments don’t present themselves as luxuries at all. For me, a good example of this kind of luxury—at the risk of sounding like a paid flack—is Amazon.com.

I loooooove Amazon.

I use it to buy cheap used copies of the books I want, I use the reviews and the “Look Inside” function to help me decide whether to buy, I use the reader recommendations and the books suggested by Amazon.

I’ve just discovered the amazing “Search Inside” tool. I often want to re-read some half-remembered passage, but don’t feel like hunting it down. For example, I recently wanted to re-read the passage in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan where Barrie explains that the Neverlands is different for every child:

John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents …On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

I did a search for “land no more,” a phrase I remembered, and up it popped. Supremely satisfying.

But I never gave much thought to Amazon. Now, though, I’ve trained myself to pause as I click on the link to think: zoikes, I love Amazon. It’s fun, it’s useful, it’s easy, it’s free, it’s all about books. What a luxury.

One thing, however, I try not to do is to read the Amazon reviews of Power Money Fame Sex, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, or Profane Waste. Because of the “negativity bias,” our negative reactions are far stronger and more persistent than our positive reactions. I’ve discovered that reading one bad comment will ruin my morning, and reading five positive comments won’t cheer me up. So I try to resist.

That said, a good (yet easy) deed is to post a positive review for a book you like. Readers really pay attention to those reviews—well, at least I pay attention—and so taking a few minutes to say that you liked a book is a service to other readers and, of course, the writer. Even if the writer might be too thin-skinned to read those reviews very often.

I’m off to Amazon right now to buy David Mitchell’s FANTASTIC novel, Cloud Atlas. I’m halfway through my library copy, but love it so much that I want to buy it for the Big Man to take on his next India trip.

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