our minds are built to get used to stuff

That’s the fact that our minds are built to get used to stuff. We just have these minds that adapt over time and habituate. Again, since we think in terms of vision, we can see this really well in a situation of Perceptual Adaptation. Have you ever been in a super dark room where you walk out into the light and all of a sudden you’re like, “The outside, the brightest thing ever. What’s going on?” Well, your visual system has adapted to being in the dark. So much so that it just assumes the dark is going to be there.

When you get this contrasting thing, this bright thing, you’re like, “What is going on?” This happens in the context of light. It also happens in cool ways in the context of color. And that’s where I’ll give you your visual illusion in the context of absolutes for the day. We’ll see if this works so bear with me here. What I want you to do is to stare at this image as much as possible. And what I’m going to try to do is to habituate and let your color receptors adapt to assuming this color that you’re looking at is just the color you see in the world. So, be staring at it really, really intensely and so on. And then when I get rid of it, if this works, you should see a really brief after image of the opposite colors that come on. Your brain has assumed so strong that those colors were there that as soon as they go away, assumes the other colors might be there even though it’s just white. Here’s a more timely one. I’m going to leave this on longer to see if it works. Stare at this image.

You may not know who this person is. Stare, stare, stare. Eyes really big staring, starting, staring. She goes away, and tell who it was. It was Beyonce, but anyway, you’re supposed to do this with your screen close. Anyway, Coursera will have it and it all work out. But basically, this is the phenomena of Perceptual Adaptation. Your perceptual systems just in those few seconds, are just assuming like, “Oh, the state of the world is just like I see a reverse flag on the screen and that’s just like the way it is.” And as soon as it goes away, you’re like, “Whoa, what’s happening?” Right? You’re getting used to stuff over time. The phenomena is the same in the context of hedonics, in the context of what makes us happy. It’s not like we just get a stimulus and it’s there and we notice it all the time. We just get used to it. And this is this phenomena of Hedonic Adaptation.

I’ll give you a quick definition of this. This is this process of becoming accustomed to both positive stuff and negative stuff, such that the effects you get from that emotionally don’t work as well over time. This is the thing that makes a lot of the awesome stuff we see not as awesome. And I love this little meme of the cat facing this awesome thing, the cat saying he’s faced with all these hot dogs, she’s saying, “Yes, I believe I’m going to enjoy this.” And I feel like this is the situation we face a lot. We see this hedonic stimulus, that’s awesome. Like, “I’m going to get this and it’s going to be awesome. And the more I get of it, the more awesome it is going to be.” And the fact is, this is just wrong. This is just not the way it works and it doesn’t work like that in part because of Hedonic Adaptation. The problem with all these awesome things that once we get them, usually they tend to stick around and we get a new job you’re going to be in that job for a while. You buy awesome stuff, a new car, a house. You meet the person of your dreams. You achieve this perfect grades, you get a certain GPA. These things stick around, you get used to them. They become the new normal. They stop bringing you the happiness that you expect. And they reset your reference point for the future. This is one of the reasons that when we get this stuff, it doesn’t make us happy. This is really what’s going on. Can we see these effects? How about these effects in the context of money? Do we habituate to money? You might think, “No, if I had awesome money, I would love it forever.” But you just saw the effects I talked about, which is that as soon as your income gets bumped up one dollar more, you actually want a dollar 40 more, like a really particular regular spot where you get these sort of form of hedonic adaptation. There’s an even better study that looked at this by Di Tella et al., where they really looked at individual people at their salary adaptation over time. They tracked people across almost 20 years in Germany. As their salary went up and up it up, they tried to see, are you getting used to it? And here’s what they find. Here is people’s salaries. This is the 90s like dotcom boom, and people’s salary was like. And here’s what they’re happiness looks like. It’s just flat, you just get used to it.

That’s the context of money. How about an extreme case in the context of money, maybe like over time, there’s such small changes you can get used to them. But what if you get a big windfall all of a sudden? What if you win millions of dollars in the lottery? Surely, you would notice that. Surely, you wouldn’t get adapted to that. Well, Brickman and colleagues did a very famous study where they looked at lottery winners one year on and they assess their happiness. Lottery winners versus controls who did not win the lottery. What you find is lottery winners report about four out of six happiness. That seems pretty good, until you realize that controls who haven’t won the lottery are at 3.82 statistically no different in that case. Even like this huge windfall, you think you’re not going to get used to having a bazillion dollars. You actually just do. This is also true in marriages, as you guys saw. I love this cartoon of the happy people who are just married. But then two years later, they’re just married. That’s all they are. We saw this graph last time. Basically, if you missed it last time, here’s the graph of marriage satisfaction. As you get to time zero of marriage, life satisfaction goes up.

But then by two years and you’re no statistically different, and then you just habituate to your partner. They stay around. You just get used to them just like Perceptual Adaptation. What about one that’s a little bit more close to home? This phenomenon of going to Yale. You guys have been at Yale for a while, most of you, so if you forget how happy you are when you first find out that you go Yale, so to remind you, I went to YouTube where I was happy to learn that there’s a lot of these, except college acceptance videos, where people film. This seems so anxiety provoking to me. I can’t imagine that people do this like take a video of themselves as they’re clicking, but they are there and if you watch them, those people are very happy to find out they got in. So, this morning when you got up and as soon as you got up, you realize you’re in school where you’re like, “Wait, I’m a Yale student.” Were you like, “I’m at Yale. Holy crap. Holy crap.” Probably, you guys are laughing because, no.

Why is this all the case? Well, the psychologist, Dan Gilbert, with his fantastic book called Stumbling Into Happiness, is a really great quip about this, where he notes that wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen. But they’re wonderful and this wanes with repetition. That moment when you’re like, “I’m going to Yale,” the first time you realize that, that is fantastic. But the subsequent moments, you just get used to them. He also has these examples that you guys are too young to realize but he talks about the first time your partner says, “I love you.” It’s just like the best ever. But like last Tuesday, when they say I love you, it’s just nothing. Or it’s the first time your child says mommy or daddy, it’s like the best thing ever. But then,17 years later, when you guys say mommy and daddy, it just loses its thing. But this is sad, right? Because we want to maintain the awesomeness of all these moments. These things are going to stick around. We want them to remain as awesome, but as we get used to them, we just get sad and bored over time which is kind of