- AI and the Perils and Perks of Pleasure Adaptation
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June 29, 2023

"Life's under no obligation to give us what we expect." 

- Margaret Mitchell

As I contemplate a future marked by AI and automation, I can't help but feel a dichotomy of emotion. On one side, we are giving birth to a new intelligence that will usher revolutionary change in record time. Arguably more significant than the discovery of electricity and nuclear energy combined! On the other side, loss. Potentially the loss of 95% of white-collar jobs by 2035, as they are now defined. What will we do if AI can replace us in nearly every area of knowledge worker?

Amid this dramatic transition, I find solace in a psychological concept known as the hedonic adaptation.

Ever taken a moment to appreciate the sheer beauty of a rainbow after a heavy downpour? Its multicolored spectrum brings an undeniable smile to our faces, doesn't it? But then, after a couple of minutes, that initial thrill fades away, and we move on with our lives. That, my friends, is a perfect manifestation of hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation describes our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite significant positive or negative life changes. In simpler terms, it's our inherent ability to grow accustomed to new experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, over time.

Why do I find this phenomenon fascinating?

The answer lies in the mundane. Let's look at a slice of everyday life. Remember the thrill you felt when you got your first smartphone? Those shiny features, the sleek design, everything was new and exciting. Fast forward a few months, the novelty wears off, and your precious gadget becomes just another phone. The joy it brought has plateaued. It's hedonic adaptation at play, impacting our pursuit of happiness in the most rudimentary manner.

I recall the old Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. The old storyteller begins his tale, saying, 

"And a man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness.

And all the animals drew near to him and said, 'We do not like to see you so sad. 

Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.'

The man said, 'I want to have good sight.' The vulture replied, 'You shall have mine.' 

The man said, 'I want to be strong.' The jaguar said, 'You shall be strong like me.' 

Then the man said, 'I long to know the secrets of the earth.' The serpent replied, 'I will show them to you.' 

And so it went with all the animals. And when the man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, 'Now the man knows much, he'll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.' 

The deer said, 'The man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.' But the owl replied, 'No. I saw a hole in the man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking until one day the World will say, 'I am no more and I have nothing left to give.'

This parable serves as a commentary on the insatiable nature of mankind. Despite receiving everything they could possibly need from the earth and its creatures, humans continue to crave more, driven by a deep-seated void or "hole" they seek to fill. Sound familiar?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, hedonic adaptation serves an essential survival purpose. It prevents us from becoming too comfortable with our circumstances, encouraging us to strive for more. This process, while seemingly disheartening, actually aids in pushing us forward, nudging us towards progression. For this reason, entrepreneur and VC investor Marc Andreessen isn't worried about AI's impact on humanity and jobs. Citing Milton Friedman, Andreessen highlighted, "Human wants and needs are endless" – we always want more than we have. 

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, emphasized that what can never be taken away from us is our past experiences and actions, both positive and negative. He argues that everything we have done, experienced, or endured is preserved forever and cannot be undone. This includes the way we have responded to suffering or hardship. He suggests that if we have faced suffering honestly, courageously, and with dignity, nothing in the World can deny or annihilate that. According to Frankl, this perspective can help individuals face life's challenges, including death, with acceptance and dignity.

So how do we adapt to minimizing the negative and accentuating the positive experiences?

Lyubomirsky (2011), in her groundbreaking work, suggested that while we can't prevent hedonic adaptation entirely, we can slow it down by appreciating and savoring positive experiences, practicing gratitude, setting and pursuing goals, investing in relationships and varying our experiences. 

For example, consider this: Instead of having your favorite ice cream daily, save it for the weekends. The anticipation and the break from routine could make it taste even better—the same for those practicing "cheat days" in diet or exercise. 

Taking a moment each day to express gratitude for the people and experiences that bring us joy can also counteract hedonic adaptation. Emmons & McCullough (2003) showed that individuals who kept gratitude journals reported higher levels of life satisfaction. As we work with this natural process, we gain greater control over our pursuit of happiness.

It's important to remember that the newness of experiences fades, but that does not diminish their value. Whether it's your first smartphone or your hundredth rainbow, the beauty is always there. It's just about finding new ways to appreciate it.

As for me, I've started setting aside a few moments each day to savor the simple pleasures, like a cup of coffee in the morning or the sound of my kid's laughter. And let me tell you, it's certainly made a difference. I urge all of us to explore this approach, embracing both the perils and perks of hedonic adaptation as we continually seek happiness in the journey of life.

It's not about chasing the rainbow but learning to appreciate it anew each time it graces the sky.

Keep exploring, keep learning.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.