Hedonic Adaptation: Why Getting Your Dream Body Won’t Make You Happy

Photo by William Choquette on Pexels.com

How many times have you gotten something new, thinking it’ll make you so unbelievably happy every time you use it? It’s fun for a while, and you appreciate it the first few times because you really notice the difference between the old and new things. Unfortunately, those feelings of newness wear off pretty quickly. We humans get used to things, we adapt. Thank goodness too, because we had to adapt to things pretty quickly back when we were hunters and gatherers. 

We adapt to both the good and the bad. Maybe you realized you can’t really afford the penthouse apartment you sprung on, so when your lease is up, you move into a studio you can afford. That might feel sad for a while, but like the upgrades, you get used to it after some time.

Unless things are really bad: raccoons living in the walls or bat swooping over your head while you sleep. Even then, maybe you’d find that the racoons eat your garbage so you don’t have to take it out as often and the bats keep your place mosquito free. Pros and cons, right?

This whole getting used-to-things phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation. I think of this term as returning to baseline happiness after something really good or bad happens and our outlook on life spikes or dips considerably. Some even refer to this as the hedonic treadmill. Because treadmills are monotonous and boring, and we don’t actually get anywhere physically, the term makes plenty of sense to me. 

Human beings like to chase happiness, and many of us are constantly working toward feeling jubilant instead of mere contentment. When we return to baseline after something amazing, many of us look for outside ways to get another happiness spike, through retail therapy or other means. The gist here is that even when we get something we think would genuinely make us happy in the long term, we tend to return to where we were before it happened  in almost no time. 

One way that people hunt for elation is by working toward getting their ideal body… or even just losing a few pounds. As a dietitian and community educator, I hear quite literally every day that someone would be so happy if they were a size 10 again or lost 5 pounds. Once again, thank you diet culture for making people feel bad about themselves and making them strive to change their body in some way.

How people think they would feel if they just lost a few pounds

Countless magazines at the supermarket checkout line have headlines in big, bold letters advertising ways to lose 15 pounds in an hour with a handsome dude or pretty lady on the front. Commercials marketing weight loss systems or work out programs force our subconscious to associate body shape and size with never ending joy or pure disappointment in one’s self. Often, when people work to modify their body’s appearance, they do so because they believe it will give them lasting happiness or destroy an insecurity they have. 

In my article from last week about diet culture, I described how even if we get to our body goals, we just move the target further down the line. If you do continue to hit the goals you keep moving for yourself, they’ll become utterly ridiculous. Your thoughts will start to look like this: 

“Awesome, I can fit into the t-shirt that I wore in high school. But now I’d really like to fit into the shirt, the one with Elmo on it, that I wore on my 2nd grade picture day. If I could just do that, nothing would ever bother me again!!!!!! Especially not the health problems my body might experience as a result of meeting this goal.”

Elmo gets to hang with Mindy? What a lucky duck.

Elmo shirts are rad. But if you want to fit into an Elmo shirt, maybe just find one in your current size to give you a temporary, retail therapy happiness boost. Even if we get to our perfect, ideal body size/shape (and fit into our middle school neon skinny jeans), we will still find something to be self-conscious about. Maybe it’ll shift to stretch marks or cellulite, which everyone has by the way. Or how big your feet are. That one has plagued me for years. 

It’s not always about weight loss either. Men and women alike look to other people in the gym or fitness influences on Instagram and think they’ll thrive when they have prominent, veiny biceps or rock-solid abs. Any time we let our happiness rely on looking a certain way, we’re doomed.

Those prominent, veiny biceps you dream about

The best way I have found to overthrow the equation that ideal body = immortal bliss is to appreciate what my body can do, not how I think it looks. Yoga has helped me with this a ton, as my goals have become more along the lines of working toward doing specific poses instead of how my belly might look while doing it. After my first yoga class, I thought crow pose was never going to happen for me, but now I can do it without even thinking. Thank you, body! 

Maybe for you, it’s about how your body lets you taste amazing foods, see wonderful sights, or listen to beautiful music. Maybe it’s about how it allows you to hug your loved ones, ride a bike with the wind going through your hair (and helmet please), or feel the sunshine on your skin. It takes time and patience to get to the body appreciation stage, and there will likely be a ton of negative self-talk fighting for your attention while you attempt to shift your thoughts toward more grateful ones.

If you can catch yourself worrying about appearances and switch to all the amazing things your body can do, you will start to worry about your body’s appearance much less. Remember how I said I used to be hung up on my huge feet? Instead of criticizing them for their size, I now think about how they take me everywhere I want to go. They let me walk through markets in Thailand and hike in Alaska.

This image would not be possible without... my feet! Thank u, love u.

They let me take my perfect son to the dog park so he can prance around like the majestic beast he is. They put up with dirt when I walk outside barefoot and cereal crumbs when I accidentally drop some on the floor and then step on them. They do all of these things without complaint, and it feels so much better to throw some appreciation their way instead of being hung up on the thought that people will ask me if I’m a clown and where my tiny car is parked. 

Striving for the perfect diet, working out 6 hours a day, and looking at fit bodies on social media for motivation might get you to a body that you think you’ll be happy with, but chances are good you’ll move your target or feel stressed about maintaining it all anyway. The real way to make yourself happier when it comes to your body is by taking genuinely good care of it and appreciating all that it does for you every day. 

As Always, A Book Recommendation

The The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is one amazing and engaging read. This book isn’t about not caring about anything- it’s about only giving time to the right things and not wasting your time on the other stuff. Constantly thinking about fitness, trying new restrictive meal plans, and spending hours on workouts you hate are examples of giving time to things that don’t matter.

They may feel like they matter, but you won’t be laying on your deathbed thinking about how happy you were that you fit into those jorts from high school. You’ll be thinking about the connections and relationships you had, and all the cool, non-dieting stuff you did.

This book received horrible reviews on Amazon, and I get it. It’s not for everyone, but as someone who has always cared a bit too much about things that don’t matter, it resonated with me.

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