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How To Hack Gratitude: Try A Hedonic Reset

A guide to using modern science and ancient Stoic wisdom to live a more joyful life

Photo credit: Gabriele Diwald via Unsplash

Back in 2015 I came across the concept of “Hedonic Adaptation” — our tendency to adapt to pleasures. I became fascinated with the idea. I started to think about how I might beat Hedonic Adaptation, and started thinking about an idea I termed “Hedonic Reset”.

Using the concept of Hedonic Reset has changed my outlook drastically. In this article, I’ll explain the basis of hedonic adaptation and reset, and give you practical ways to use them in your own life.

The result? More joy and appreciation in your life.

The joy from a hedonic reset can be extreme. This video captures a hedonic reset as it unfolds. It shows polar explorer Aleksander Gamme discovering a cache he’d left himself several weeks earlier. As he approaches, he doesn’t remember what he’s left for himself and is hoping he might find something more than the standard rations he’s been surviving on for weeks. (Turn on closed captions for English subtitles):


My own story

Around 2008, while living in Sydney, Australia and working a cushy corporate job in a large media company, I noticed the insidious first-world-problems of dissatisfaction creeping in. Over the previous few years, my lifestyle had become increasingly superficial and consumption focused. I was, in hindsight, a classic case of conspicuous consumption, with my overpriced handbags and embarrassing high heels. First world problems, to be sure. I was running faster and faster on a consumption treadmill, but getting nowhere.

I somewhat impulsively quit my job, and took on a new 12-month role with one of Australia’s Asia-Pacific regional capacity building programs. That landed me in hot, dusty, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Overnight I went from a luxurious climate-controlled Sydney penthouse to a dirty, humid mosquito-ridden guesthouse in the Cambodian capital.

Shock set in. What had I done? Why did I leave? I questioned my own sanity.

But the biggest surprise was not the initial shock, but that the shock evaporated so quickly! Within a week I was waking up wondering what I was so afraid of. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. I had some clean water, I had some rice, I had some shelter. I had a few friends, too. After a few weeks, I adapted almost completely to the new normal.

A year later I returned to Sydney, Australia. Again I went overnight between two extremes — back to a luxurious apartment with all the modern conveniences and comforts. The asymmetry was even more striking. Arriving in Sydney felt like I’d tumbled into a wonderland: the fresh water out of the tap, the shower head, the fresh food, the clean, comfortable bed, the lounge chairs.

The intensity of the high of these pleasures when reinstated was much greater than the intensity of the low when the pleasures had been lost. The intensity was also different in terms of duration — the experience of these pleasures lasted a lot longer than the discomfort had lasted in the reverse situation.

It occurred to me I might have inadvertently stumbled upon a way to create a happiness net gain, spiking gratitude and pleasure… a “hedonic reset” of sorts. I became curious to learn why the reset had worked and on how I could recreate this effect in a simpler way in my day to day life back in Australia, and now here in the USA.


Definitions and basics

Firstly — a few useful foundation concepts.

Hedonic adaption

Hedonic adaption is the tendency to get used to whatever pleasures you have in life (habituation).

Hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is the vicious cycle of hedonic adaptation—once you get used to the pleasures you have, you must seek new pleasures. It becomes a never-ending quest, feeling like you’re going nowhere.

Or in the words of St Augustine — “Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.”

It looks like this:

It’s part of human nature to be unsatisfied. We gain temporary satisfaction when we get the new car, house, t-shirt, lover, job, pay-rise, promotion, whatever. But we get used to it quickly, and acquire a new ambition. Things that were once a luxury become a necessity. We get on that hedonic treadmill.

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests … a warning — Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.
— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

We quickly lose appreciation

The law of diminishing marginal utility applies to pleasures, too. The first bite of the cake on cheat day brings so much pleasure. But if you keep eating, you don’t get increasing pleasure. In fact, the amount of pleasure you get with each next bite seems to decrease.

Loretta Graziano Breuning puts it well in her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals:

The first lick of an ice cream cone is heaven. Ten licks later, your attention wanders. You start thinking about the next thing on your agenda, and the next. You still love the ice cream, but you don’t feel it as much because it’s not new information. Your brain is looking for the next great way to meet your needs. Dopamine is triggered by new rewards. Old rewards, even incredibly creamy-delicious ones, don’t command your brain’s attention. Scientists call this habituation.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Meet Your Happy Chemicals

Expectations and reference points

Your reference point creates expectations. What seems “normal” to you often doesn’t correspond to an objective “normal”. Our expectations tend to be for experience to improve… but if what we have in life is already pretty great, it can be harder for us to get a higher state of pleasure. Then, we are back to being dissatisfied.

Our expectations are relative to our reference point.

Yuval Noah Harari said it pretty well in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

All is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

A solution: the hedonic reset

A hedonic reset is a way to counter the effects of adaptation, regain appreciation, and shift your reference point.

A hedonic reset is a deliberate, temporary deprivation of hedonic pleasures, resulting in a bigger gain in gratitude, and stalling hedonic adaptation.

Instead of the usual hedonic treadmill, like this:

We add a sort of speed bump—the hedonic reset—in the path:

The power of the hedonic reset method is that it changes our reference point. Because our expectations are relative to our reference point, this in fact brings our expectations to a level where we can find joy in what we have now.

After the reset, you have the same things you always had—but relatively they feel better than before. It can seem magical because nothing external has changed, just your perception of it.

Why does a hedonic reset work?

A hedonic reset has the effect of resetting gratitude. By losing something for a short time, we feel grateful when we get it back.

A hedonic reset also has the effect of re-triggering savoring. By losing something for a short time, we savor it more. It seems novel again.


How to practice a hedonic reset

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
- Seneca

In practice, a hedonic reset is an act of subtraction. When we are unhappy, we often look to add more. However, a hedonic reset is the exact opposite — it’s a method of removing something.

After my own accidental hedonic reset, I started to look more systematically for things that could be reset in my life. I found it was possible to insert small resets into my daily life—I didn’t have to turn my life upside down again and quit my job and leave the country to get results. I tested out implementing smaller resets and found, with regularity, I could still achieve great effects.

Here’s a guide for how you can get started.

1. Identify your personal reset target

Take a moment to reflect on what might benefit from a reset in your life. Ask yourself —

What pleasure have I habituated to?
What used to bring me joy, but now I take for granted?
What am I feeling bored of?

Ask yourself these question, and see what comes up. Can you recall things that you remember enjoying, but that no longer “have their shine”? Try not to pass judgment over your thoughts; remember that hedonic adaptation is part of being human. Try to pinpoint something that makes sense to you, either intuitively or rationally (or ideally both).

Material resets are a great idea. They are generally the simplest to implement.

Some people have an immediate idea of what they want to reset, but for others this is not the case. Don’t worry if nothing comes up straight away — below you’ll find a whole load of ideas that have been tried before by me or other “resetters”. Some of the ideas might seem funny—this might be a sign that it’s a good opportunity for you! Counterintuitively, the strategic deprivation of a hedonic reset can actually be fun.

Examples of resets to try:

  • Types of food — chocolate, coffee, meat, wine etc. — try removing one or try eating more simple foods or even fasting.
  • Certain appliances — your kettle, toaster etc. — try putting them away in a cupboard to refrain from using.
  • Bedroom comforts — pillows/cushions, even your bed or lounge — try sleeping and sitting without these.
  • Clothes — put your favorite sweater, jeans, jewelry aside for a period of time. Or try wearing less comfortable clothes.
  • Temperature — try turning off air conditioners/fans/heaters.
  • Smartphone/computers — try putting phone or computer in a drawer for a day and going without.
  • Reset on transportation—if you drive, try doing without a car. If you bike, try walking instead. Force yourself to rely on public transportation.
  • Entertainment—disable your access to TV, Netflix, video games, etc. for a period of time.
  • Relationship resets—we’ve all heard the adage that absence can make the heart grow fonder. When we start to take for granted people this is also just a simple sign of hedonic adaptation, and a reset can help! You might mutually agree to spend some time apart from your significant other/friend/loved ones .

2. Start small — define an achievable reset

In step 1, you chose your hedonic reset target. Now it’s time to define your reset duration.

I suggest starting small. Mmaybe you sleep without your pillow tonight to reset appreciation for the comfort more tomorrow. Maybe you skip Netflix for a couple of nighst, to reset appreciation for the entertainment later in the week. Maybe you have your coffee or tea without sugar or cream for a week to reset appreciation for the sweet and creamy hot drink next week.

Ideally, define a duration that feels easy, and almost fun — there is a gamification aspect here that can form a self-reinforcing spiral to help you form a habit of doing hedonic resets.

3. Do your hedonic reset

Choose a time that makes your reset achievable, and commit! I like to tweet it out #hedonicreset, and I tell the people around me what I’m doing, which helps keep me accountable.

Do what works for you to feel committed and try to go into it with a fun and playful attitude.

After the reset: What to do next

I’ve consistently found that I can expect to have heightened gratitude and joy for whatever reset target I chose. You can expect the same.

Assess how the experience was for you. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship to the pleasure you temporarily abstained from?

If you fell off the wagon, don’t be too hard on yourself. You can try again with a smaller target and duration. If you had a good experience, that’s great! Keep looking for other opportunities to reset.

Eventually you might want to try a bigger hedonic reset, where you subtract more things at the same time or subtract for a longer duration. Different kinds of immersive time away can be impactful, as I found. Many people get a massive hedonic reset via a camping trip, or a silent retreat or meditation retreat, or visiting a developing country and experiencing life with less.

Give it a try—good luck with your first hedonic reset — may you beat hedonic adaptation!


Common questions, and further reading

Isn’t this just like we do in my religion?

I’d probably be remiss to not mention the myriad religious rituals which also directly or indirectly, deliberately or not, help slow hedonic adaptation. Although I think of the hedonic reset as more of a scientific and secular practice than spiritual, there is wisdom across many religions that is useful to consider.

I’ve come across religious rituals which would certainly provide a hedonic reset. Lent, which can involve fasting and other forms of sacrifice; Ramadan which can include abstaining from food, drink, and other physical needs; or the Buddhist precepts which can involve abstaining from wearing certain clothes, make up, perfume, jewelry, sitting on a “high or luxurious throne or seat”, singing or dancing and partial or full fasting.

Isn’t this just like Stoicism?

Yes. A lot of these idea draw on the teachings of the great Stoic philosophers, particularly Seneca.

Where can I read more about the science?

Here’s a list of relevant studies that show the positive effects on happiness and contentment from gratitude and savoring practices.