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drawing of we notice acceleration, not speed

❝Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world...We take our lives and what we have for granted rather then delight in them.❞ -William Irvine

Driving down the freeway, my dog Bingo lays in the backseat and sleeps the trip away. That is, until I hit the brake, speed up, or make a turn. All is well for her napping endeavors until something changes.

Then I realize I’m the same. I can sit in the passenger seat while my wife drives down the road and fall asleep. As soon as she exits the freeway and decelerates, I wake up.

It occurs to me that we don’t notice constant states very easily. I don’t know that I’m flying 500 miles an hour when I’m on a plane. However, it feels very fast when we cruise down the runway to take off, and I can tell we're stopping after the plane lands.

The same idea is true in our lives, including our financial lives.


At the risk of boring you to death, we can start our discussion with a (very) quick calculus lesson. Calculus is basically a way to understand how things move and change. Specifically, we can think about how things change relative to each other.

Imagine a graph with an X-axis and a Y-axis. You can plot a line showing the relationship between these two variables.

drawing of xy chart

At any point on this graph, you can find that point's slope.

drawing of derivatives

The slope of each point, to use a calculus term, is called a derivative. It tells you how the graph changes at that particular moment.

drawing of derivatives


Okay, enough with this esoteric stuff. You might be wondering what this has to do with anything. Let’s relate this to something we can all wrap our heads around.

Imagine something resting in space. It could be sitting at position A, for example.

drawing of position

If we were to move from position A to position B, that represents a change in position. Using the calculus term, the first derivative of position represents a change in position.

drawing of moving from point a to point b

This change in position is called speed.

drawing of speed

If you are cruising down the freeway with your cruise control on, you are moving at a constant speed. That is, the rate of change in your position is constant.

drawing of constant speed

This brings us to the second derivative of position. A change in position is called speed. A change in speed is called acceleration. If you speed up, then you are increasing your speed; you are accelerating.

drawing of acceleration

The opposite is true as well. If you are slowing down, you are decreasing your speed or decelerating.

drawing of deceleration

A grateful person exhibits certain traits. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.


What’s any of this have to do with money or life?

Well, imagine sitting on an airplane. Even though you are going over 500 miles an hour, you don’t notice it. If you are cruising on the freeway at 70 miles per hour, you don’t notice it. Because even though there is a particular speed, there is no acceleration. We don’t notice the constant; we only notice the change.

And so it is with life. We notice when something good (or bad) happens to us. We notice when we get that new car or house. We notice when we get the raise or the promotion. This is like noticing that the plane is taking off or landing. This is like noticing you stepping on the gas or hitting the brake.

But then it becomes part of our life. We get used to it. We adapt. In other words, we “get up to speed.”

This concept is called hedonic adaptation, and it’s why the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence.

drawing of adaptation

We get used to things very quickly and don’t notice them.

drawing of we get used to things quickly and adapt

Think of it this way. There’s a good chance things have improved for you over time. You make more than you did ten years ago, for example. Or you may have a better quality of life than you used to.

drawing of what you have and gratittde

But until I mentioned that, you likely forgot. We get used to what we have. We get used to our position in life because it’s what we see every day.

drawing of getting used to what we have

Once we get used to what we have, we start thinking about wanting more. It’s difficult for us to define enough. Many of us find ourselves on the hedonic treadmill on an endless pursuit of more.

drawing of what we want is not what we have

We always want more, and that's frustrating. This is because of hedonic adaptation. It's because we're driving our car, but it doesn't feel like we are moving.

drawing of not having what we want

Because of hedonic adaptation, we forget that what we have is what we used to want. And now that we have it, we want more.

drawing of what you have is what you used to want

We always seem to be dissatisfied with what we don't have. We're always striving for more, lost in the fog of hedonic adaptation.

drawing of hedonic adaptation

And as a result, we often feel like we are constantly spinning our wheels.

drawing of hedonic adaptation


When you're driving your car, it may not feel like you're moving, but you are moving. And if you're in your car traveling 60 miles per hour but acting as if you're not moving, you put yourself and others at risk. That is dangerous.

Similarly, even though you got used to what you have, you still have it. You can notice that once you lift the hedonic adaptation fog.

drawing of perspective and gratitude

You're doing better than you think you are. You just have to zoom out and take a new perspective.

drawing of perspective and gratitude

The antidote to hedonic adaptation and to taking your life for granted is practicing gratitude. Can you feel grateful for all you have? Can you feel grateful for the people in your life? Can you feel grateful that you're in the position you're in and not a worse position?

drawing of gratitude

We get used to constant states but are hyperaware of changes in these states. There is potential danger in getting used to constant states.

You don't notice how fast you're moving while driving, but if you fail to remember that you're moving, you may cause harm to yourself or others.

We don't notice how much we have, but failing to remember how much we have puts us at risk of taking our lives for granted.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Ariely, Dan & Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy Boniwell, Ilona: Positive Psychology in a Nutshell Dunn, Elizabeth & Michael Norton: Happy Money Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness Seligman, Martin: Flourish Wallace, David Foster: This is Water Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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