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Hedonic Adaptation: That Was So Last Decade!

Like an emotional regression to the mean, hedonic adaptation is the psychological process whereby heightened feelings fade with time.  It helps explains things like why a year or so after winning the lottery, winners often report being no happier than non-winners.


Want that initial happiness back? Dare to be different.


In a series of studies on hedonic adaptation, Robert W. Smith from The Ohio State University and Ed O'Brien from University of Chicago found that consuming things in unconventional ways enhances enjoyment of them.





For example, in one of their experiments, participants were asked to eat popcorn using their hands (conventional method) or chopsticks (unconventional method). Those eating with chopsticks reported enjoying the popcorn a lot more.


To explain their finding, Smith and O'Brien suggest that novelty results in people paying more attention and when you pay more attention to something enjoyable, it follows that you are more likely to enjoy it more.



 source: The Daily Snooze




Ask your students:

  • What are some common life events where initial happiness levels recede after time (examples: getting married or starting a new job).
  • Why would hedonic adaptation be seen as great news for advertisers and marketers?
  • Generate your own unconventional consumption methods. (when Smith and O'Brien asked their participants to come up with their own unconventional ways to consume water, suggestions ranged from drinking out of a martini glass or travel mug to lapping it up like a cat!)
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This is great because students could actually practice this in class (just bring in a big bag of popcorn... and a vacuum).


Other good questions maybe:

  • What might a student do to make class interesting for a day?
  • How might a religious person spice things up at church?
  • How might a couple rekindle the marriage spark?
  • How could you make your walk to school more interesting?   (Since I walk to school I could even tell the students, "Hey, I'm willing to try your suggestions for one day")
  • Is there value in novelty even if you decide later it made things worse?
  • What novelties have you tried and hated?  What did you do with those novel ideas (talk about them with friends and ask someone else to try it is my bet)

Interesting!  "Hedonic value is defined as that value a customer receives based on the subject experience of fun and playfulness."  Ok, that makes perfect sense,


I'm always looking for unconventional ways to spice up my class so students stay excited and motivated and happy, not stressed by the class.


I've found that something as simple as playing music, while students are working on group projects seems to bring a "calmness" to the class and students are more productive and happy!


Last year I ordered FitBit zips to use in class to study and learn about computing in a simple, non-threatening environment..:).  It's funny how some of my older students are "afraid" of the desktop computers, but LOVED playing with these little computing devices!

Great questions Scott.  Thanks very much.


This is such an interesting article, David. This information can be applied to so many facets of our lives, regardless of our professions and interests. I agree with the Happiness chart and completely understand how the initial excitement fades over time. For me, simple, inexpensive, silly changes can make me happy.


Examples include eating ice cream out of my favorite cute cup that my daughter gave me or setting the dinner table with nice dinnerware even when eating takeout food. Color also adds happiness to my day. I recently made few slight, inexpensive changes to my workspace/office. Such changes included using motivational cards to display on a cute clipboard/stand; I notice the motivations every day as I enter the room and I can shuffle the cards for variety. I am working on adding a bulletin board for decoration purposes only and I have enjoyed collecting items that I will add to the board...just a colorful and motivating visual that I look forward to seeing; it's sort of like my version of a vision board, but with motivating statements and my favorite colors.


It is amazing how much a few slight changes have made me enjoy my workspace/office a little better; I find it more inviting and soothing. From a student perspective, Scott offers some awesome prompts. I would ask my students:


  • "How would you make this course interesting for the week/month/semester? OR
  • What would you like to see on the Discussion Board for student research and reflection in this course?"

I suspect that students would come up with some great ideas, not typical things that I would create, things that would make them happy and help them learn at the same time. Getting student feedback in general has made my student very involved in the past. For example, I often ask for a reflection post of what they enjoy most in a chapter, what is the most challenging, what they need to explore more, etc. I am a fan of experiential learning theory and have found that my students are more engaged when I ask for their personal reflections, their opinions. It allows students to have a voice, as well as allows students to revisit a chapter/unit and reflect upon what they learned. I am going to continue this, but add some of Scott's suggestions to modify the reflection prompts. Thanks, Scott!


From a professional development perspective, I would like to take this idea to another level at work with colleagues. I am thinking along the lines of asking colleagues what might make their day/week/month easier and more fun. Now that I think about it, what happened to the "Suggestion Box" that resided in my building once upon a time? It's time to go looking for it (or some digital version of a suggestion box). I suspect that some colleagues may appreciate some form of having a voice too. Thanks everyone! This is inspiring!


PS: Feel free to share any additional questions for students and colleagues. I am eager to try this idea out on both!

Valued Contributor

Sounds like something I could see implementing in my teaching...

@mike_lafreniere Interesting.  Now as far as I know, you teach math (or is it physics?) - how might the topic of hedonic adaptation come up in your courses? Just curious.

Valued Contributor

I thought of using the technique (more than discussing the topic) of hedonic adaptation.  For example, using "chopsticks" tool to solve or learn math. Feels like the use of manipulatives when "experiencing" math concepts.


This reminds me of a method of pair pleasurable experience with "painful" experiences. For example, having the students eating chocolate or peppermints at the beginning of a math test can help ease the stress and anxiety the students may be experiencing.

Valued Contributor

Popcorn with chopsticks did make me smile.  🙂


Neat ideas here! Gentle humor in the classroom can help, as can something unexpected. I try to do this with my writing students in regard to their journal prompts. Keeping each week's activity fun yet different helps them pay attention and stay engaged (or, at least, that's the goal!). 


Studies have also shown that learning the same material, but in different ways (and sometimes odd ways) helps reinforce the material.  I like using games in class that help reinforce the academic material.  It is important, however, to have a debriefing session to go over why this "weird" activity, is helpful in understanding the lecture material.


This would be a great addition to teaching goal setting and motivation!  Athletes switch up their routine achieve different results and increase performance.  Finding new ways to appreciate anything especially when there is a mental or emotional block is an obstacle that many face.  


I encourage my students to follow their passion vs. extrinsic motivations to avoid such burnout.  


It's fascinating to see this illustrated. 

@Sandy_Keeter its great that you shuffle classroom engagement activities to motivate students to learn and use technology!


Very interesting. I try to come up with different ways to relay content to students. They are often reluctant and sometimes resist to doing things differently. But I will keep trying because it works as stated in this article.

Valued Contributor

Very interesting and corroborates the fact that we must try new things in teaching in order to make it more motivating and fun (hence engaging) for students. For example, I have been using polling in class off and on using Moodle's built-in functionality. It worked but then I felt that I needed to "spice" it up a bit and created a game instead to conduct a similar polling. Students loved it and reported that it considerably helped their learning.