Hedonic adaptation is a sexy intellectual term that, when spoken at a cocktail party, will make you sound relatively intelligent. This cryptic phrase captures one of humanity’s most psychologically distressing traits: We tend to prolong the negative and adapt to the positive very quickly. Dr. Lorretta Breuning, in her book, Habits of a Happy Brain uses the example of chimps who are offered a reward for doing a task. The initial reward is spinach, a tasty, tender, nutritious vegetable. The chimps are then offered juice for the same task. This creates a surge of happiness in the chimp brain, facilitated by an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine.
By day three or four, the chimp has adapted to this sweet and tasty treat and its mood-elevating effects dissipate. It becomes expected. The challenge for our laboratory-bound primate cousins is that when they are forced to go back to spinach, they become enraged. Spinach was acceptable when that was all there was, but it was destabilizing after a few days of fruit punch. This is hedonic adaptation.