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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Adaptation

Description | Discussion | So what?



As humans, we are remarkably adaptable, coping with all kinds of situations, as evidenced by our being spread across the globe, from hot deserts to frozen wastes.

Our ability to adapt can of course be very helpful, enabling us to survive many of the problems that life throws at us. Yet problems can also occur.


Life's circumstances change. We make and lose money. We get conscripted to fight a war. We have accidents. While these can be exciting, terrifying or otherwise arouse our emotions, we do not stay aroused forever. Emotions are transient, appearing quickly and fading before too long. The practical aspects of the situation take over and we become engrossed in how to cope with the it all.


It is fairly well proven that couples tend to be of similar atrractiveness. If you are beautiful, then you will attract a good-looking mate. If you are average-looking, then you will most likely end up with someone else with relatively plain looks. And those who have unusual physical geography will probably end up with someone similar. It is not a given, but is is likely, and is known as 'assortative mating'.

So how do people reconcile this reality? Do they just sigh and make do? In fact there are two ways in which less attractive people find love.

First, they find attractive features that others find unattractive. That wonky nose or scraggy hair becomes just so endearing. Secondly, they find other attributes to love, such as a generous nature or a sharp intellect. In the latter, they may look down on relationships based on physical beauty as only 'skin deep'.


Are rich people happier? Are disabled people sadder? In fact while winning the lottery can joyful and having limbs amputated may be traumatic, on the whole whatever life throws at us, we adapt to our new situation and return to our natural temperamental level of happiness, at what is called our set-point.

This is, of course, both good and bad news. We think 'It'll be great when...', assuming we'll be permanently happier when we retire or get promoted. And indeed, it's fun for a while, but then we get used to our new advantages and are brought back to earth by new problems that arise. And people who suffer from outrageous misfortune and think that the world is ending for them eventually do pick themselves up and find new ways to be happy. Sometimes an exception to this is where people have terminal illnesses. Perhaps they do not recover as they feel no hope. Maybe also they do not have time to regain their former satisfaction with life.


We even become adapted to pain, suffering less when we have experience more. Dan Ariely (2010) got injured soldiers to put their hands into hot water. Those who had been more severely injured, and who had adapted to pain, could keep their hands there for over twice as long as those who had been mildly injured (58 seconds vs. 27 seconds).


When something is new, we pay attention to it, initially in case it a threat or an opportunity and then in order to become familiar with it. When it is familiar, we pay less attention, taking it for granted.

The same thing happens with life circumstances. When we are in a new situation, we pay attention to the many new things in front of us, whether they are things to do with a new partner, how to spend the inheritance or how to turn on a light when your arms have stopped working.

Paradoxically, traumatic events can lead to greater satisfaction as the challenges that the situation presents can lead us to find lasting meaning, for example where a rebellious young person gets disabled in an accident and ends up going to university and building a new life that they would never otherwise had.

This happens in repeated, shorter-term things too. If you go on one long holiday, at first it is exciting and interesting. But then after a while things become familiar and the excitement dies down. Significantly, you could be happier for longer if you went on several shorter holidays with breaks in between. The same applies to other things that you enjoy. Short bursts of novelty will make you happier for longer.

The reverse is also true. Breaking up something you do not like doing will only serve to decrease happiness. As well as the initial emotional kick, another secret is in the breaks and the beginning. During breaks you are either looking forward to restarting, thus extending the pleasure, or dreading starting again.

So what?

You can stay happier and more satisfied by keeping things fresh. Provide variation in your love life. Extend periods of happiness by doing regular small things you enjoy with breaks in between to prevent yourself adapting to the nice situation. Rather than gobbling down a bar of chocolate in one sitting, try slowly eating one bit at at time, with breaks in between until at least the taste has gone. In reverse, do things you do not like doing in one go, without taking breaks.

See also

Adaptive mechanisms, The Set-point Theory of Happiness


Ariely, D. (2010). The Upside of Rationality, London: Harper

Nelson, L.D. and Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted Consumption: Adaptation and the Disruption of Hedonic Experience. Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 654-664.


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