Big Ed and Hedonic Adaptation




Larry Seal


I still remember the second time I got called into "The Big Boss's" office. A few hours earlier, my manager and I met with a very happy client. Not only were they very pleased with the work we did for them, but they told my boss they found me an absolute joy to work with. Ok, they didn't actually say "a joy to work with," but I think we all knew what they meant. In further good news, the client wanted to engage us for two other even larger projects, and they asked for me to be their project manager. Bada Bing Bada Boom

As I got in the elevator to head to the 2nd floor (home of our VP "Big Ed"), I was confident it was because my boss had passed on the good news from our client; but as the doors to the elevator opened, I must admit I started getting nervous. The 2nd floor was hallowed ground; you could tell because it smelled musty, a bit like a graveyard. It was eerily quiet, exactly like a graveyard. It also had very nice carpet and now, strangely, way less oxygen than my floor. This was not a place a 22-year-old in his first job out of college was accustomed to visiting (I'd been there once before actually but that's a story for another time.) I started catastrophizing a bit, as I am wont to do because you never knew what shenanigans I might or might not have been involved in over the weekend had leaked back to powers that be.

The next 46 seconds are a bit hazy, but I do remember how I felt getting back in that elevator. I was elated/pumped/psyched! Big Ed thanked me for my hard work and efforts to make sure our client was pleased with our work. He shook my hand and told me he personally appreciated my hard work and looked forward to watching me grow within the company. Yeah, Baby.

I COULD NOT have felt better about me, my DNA, my life choices, this company, my career, all of it. Life was good, I was good, and it was only Monday. Tuesday morning, my boss called me into his office to let me know that I was getting a promotion to "Assistant Senior Project Manager Fourth Class." He was moving me to a desk in a new part of the floor where I could see sunlight … and … I was going to get a "still to be determined" bump in pay. I was going to tear Milwaukee up tonight!

Over the next two months, the promotion got announced, I got the first salary increase I had ever had, and my skin glowed from basking in the sun at my new desk. I got to run several new assignments, and I even got a say in which colleagues were going to be assigned to my projects. I felt good, I felt rewarded, I was building a career, and Summer Fest was coming. So So Good

I don't remember the exact date that I realized my life sucked, but I do remember it was early afternoon somewhere in June. I was at my WWII vintage desk (this thing must have weighed 600 lbs and was built with edges that were proof of why OSHA was created); it was piled high with papers and staplers and hole punches, and I was sweating from all the damned sun! All I could think was, man, this job sucks, this company sucks, our clients suck, and I am seriously underpaid. Go easy with your judgments, people, I was 22

How did my life change so much in just a few months? I didn't know the term then, but now I know the culprit was Hedonic Adaptation.

Hedonic Adaptation

Put very simply, this concept suggests that most of life's events, joyous, exciting, terrifying, heartbreaking… fade over time. Those initial impacts quickly morph into something more "normal" for you as your emotions and mindset move back toward your natural baseline of happiness and well-being.

Assuming this theory is true (and the core of it certainly is in my mind), HA seems like a pretty useful adaptation for the most part. I think about my own experience of moving through times of sadness and loss. I haven't forgotten those painful happenings (I love you, Mom), but over time it's clear I've begun to adapt, and the feelings I associated with that loss don't overwhelm or preoccupy me in the same way they did. That seems a good thing.

On the other hand, wonderful things, exciting things, and joyous things also tend to fade and become just another part of your "normal." Things like powerful recognition, a promotion, a pay raise, the joy of a new baby, a new Porsche … pretty quickly settle into normal. It's not that they aren't still great when you stop and think about them, but their dramatic "rising of the tide of your happiness and satisfaction" begins to settle into what you expect, i.e., normal. It's also not that the tide isn't actually higher; it's just that now you expect the tide to be that high.

Well, now, doesn't that stink?

So why did I start writing about this in the first place? Well, first, I think it's interesting in general, and second, this hedonic adaption situation has some interesting implications for the workplace, leadership, organizational culture, employee morale and retention.

As a Coach, I think about some of these things:

  • How do you recognize and reward people for good work and get "the most bang for your buck?"
  • How long does a free lunch actually motivate someone?
  • Is it better to give someone a nice salary increase or a really great one-time bonus?
  • Why do some people seem to crave certain types of "rewards" about 1000 times more than other people?
  • Since people apparently get used to nice things, doesn't it make sense that I choose to praise people once every three or four years?
  • I’m sure you can think of more.

My solutions and suggestions to address the above? I have some, of course, maybe useful, but I think it would be far more interesting (and likely to get all of us better quality thinking) if YOU weigh in on this.

Please consider yourself cordially invited to take a couple of minutes and share your thoughts on this subject. Let me hear one of your stories, share a win, or even better yet, a loss (I will write about schadenfreude one of these days, I promise).

Your contribution to the discussion here...

There are lots of very smart and savvy and deeply experienced folks who receive this article (they may auto-delete it, but I know they still care), so I'm looking forward to learning from your experience. Assuming anyone writes back, I promise to share back my favorite responses.

Be good out there.


A good video: Sonja Lyubomirsky


Recent Articles

Contact Us