A change is as good as a rest?

The old adage suggests “a change is as good as a rest?”. In this blog, I take a look at how Positive Psychology (PP) views the idea that both novelty and adaptation are important factors in well-being and what that might mean for us as individuals. In addition, I consider how current social changes associated with the global pandemic relate to this.

The hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill refers to the idea that we are evolutionarily primed to respond and adapt to change. That is, when something good happens we are initially very positively impacted by it, but before too long we become used to the new conditions and return to some sort of equilibrium or set point. The classic example of this is the person who wins the lottery and is initially very happy but over time tends to revert to their pre winning level of life satisfaction as they become used to the big house, car and lifestyle.

The flip side of this is that when bad things happen, such as a loss or failure, while we may be initially devastated, before too long we tend towards our previous level of emotional functioning.

The advantage of this recalibration effect is that it allows us to respond more effectively to changes in our environment which need our focus while the “normal” fades into the background. The disadvantage of this is that we can, in a goal-driven society, end up never really being satisfied with what we have and always striving for the next big thing to make us happy, not realising that the boost this achievement brings is potentially transitory. So does this mean that we always end up back where we started and there’s not much point in trying to increase our happiness and well-being?

Is it really that simple?

Psychology is about people and, of course, anything involving people is not really that simple! While considerable research supports the idea of the hedonic treadmill, there are a number of caveats (Diener et al 2006).

Firstly, the “set point” varies between individuals, there is a considerable genetic effect, and for most people, the equilibrium is not a neutral state but a generally positive one.

Secondly, as with concepts such as self-esteem, the “set point” can be different for varying domains of life, so you may have different requirements for feeling satisfied with work compared to relationships and these can change in different ways.

Thirdly, the level of adaptation to change back to the setpoint does actually vary between types of experiences and not all circumstances show complete adaptation. For example, while an extra £50,000 may make little difference to the enduring happiness of a millionaire or even the average middle-class family, people do not really adapt to abject poverty or any environmental circumstances that are beyond any individual control such as noise or oppression. So although our circumstances have much less impact on our life satisfaction than we might envisage, especially at the lower end of well-being, there is an effect.

Fourthly, individuals vary in how quickly they adapt to the same experiences in ways that are complex. Individual habituation processes may be mediated by a number of social and psychological factors such as personality traits and coping strategies and these can be influenced and trained.

Finally, longitudinal studies show that enduring changes in happiness levels can occur for individuals, so it is possible to change your set point, thus habituation is not inevitable for everyone all of the time. Just as well, as this is the point of PP! There are things we can do to intentionally help make ourselves happier but understanding the adaptation processes that might impede this is an important step in doing so.

Novelty and sustainable happiness

Studies suggest that doing new things is good for our well-being and some authors have indeed suggested that novelty need fulfilment is a basic requirement for optimal functioning (Gonzalez-Cutre et al 2016). However, there is always a need for balance and being flooded with new experiences can be overwhelming. Think about how tiring a new job can be! So too much change, over too long a period, can be stressful, but on the whole, we need a certain amount of new experiences to thrive. PP interventions including things like gratitude journaling, meditation and developing our strengths obviously involve trying novel activities. Understanding how we adapt to new things is vital so we can work to maximise their positive effects.

Classic PP studies by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues show that timing is important in the lasting impact of well-being interventions. For example, people who carried out five acts of kindness on one day per week had a more enduring boost to their happiness than those who spread these acts out over the seven days. The latter group adapted to the relatively constant impact.

As individuals, we need to be aware of this in implementing our well-being strategies to gain a long term effect. Although we also know establishing habits can be important in helping us adopt well-being activities, we need to experiment to find a way of mixing things up to prevent adaptation. For example, varying the time of day, duration, place and type of meditation I practise helps to keep the experience optimal. If I find some well-being activity doesn’t seem to be giving me a lift, I find a way to vary it. Change the route of your walk, don’t let journaling become a chore, work on different strengths on different days of the week. The point is to be aware of the need to avoid adaptation and find something that works for you, none of us are identical and the research can only tell us so much, you need to be your own experimenter and coach in this area.

Novelty and Coronavirus

Recent constraints on our activities due to the global pandemic have proved a challenge to all of us in incorporating novelty into our lives. The same four walls during lockdown reduced our ability to see different people and do new things and these challenges may not be over yet. Even if you find yourself having to self isolate, try to find ways to introduce novelty into your day. This can even be at a small level and involve switching activities regularly. Move rooms, get up from your computer and move around at times, stand on one leg while cleaning your teeth, phone someone you haven’t spoken to for ages. Understanding that you need novelty gives you the power to incorporate it into your life and avoid adaptation. This is particularly important if homeschooling children. Don’t expect them to sit doing the same thing for hours at a time, encourage them to regularly switch the type of activity they are doing, this will prevent adaptation and maintain interest more effectively. Sometimes, a change actually is as good as a rest, although obviously we all need rest too. Sitting on the sofa watching Netflix is not inherently bad but it may leave you feeling dissatisfied if you never do anything else.

References
Diener, E., Lucas, R.E. and Scollon, C.N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61(4), 305-314.

Gonzales-Cutre, D., Sicilia, A., Sierra, A.C, Ferriz, R. and Hagger, M.S. (2016). Understanding the need for novelty from the perspective of self-determination theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 159-169.

More about the author Sarah Monk and other articles HERE

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