We humans have a skill that is at once both a blessing and a curse: our minds adapt to nearly any situation. When things go badly for us, we may be dismayed, but we can usually adjust and get used to it. On the flip side, when things go really well — and we feel a surge of joy — we also get used to it. That joy gives way to our normal indifference. Then we crave more, just to get that same surge of joy.
It’s called hedonic adaptation. An increase in good things or bad happens to us, but as time goes on, we return to a steady baseline of satisfaction
Unless we can find a way out.
We can. We just have to understand how it is we do adapt, and interrupt that adaptation process. This is something that Tim Ferriss has called a practice of “voluntary hardships”. As a concept, it dates back to the Roman philosopher Seneca. It consists of regularly exposing yourself to deprivation and struggle on purpose, in order to short-circuit hedonic adaptation.
Let’s get an understanding of hedonic adaptation, and how voluntary hardships interrupt it. I’ll also lay out a few ways to put this practice into action on a regular basis — so you can begin to reap the benefits.
Stepping off the Hedonic Treadmill
Because of our ability to adapt so well, we find ourselves on a kind of treadmill. We’re running hard to chase pleasure. But we’re not getting anywhere; we’re running in place. As soon as we stop to enjoy any, we’re carried back to where we started.
The philosopher Seneca knew the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation very well. So in a letter to one of his followers, he advised a way to short-circuit it: subject yourself to regular intentional displeasure.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
It’s a simple, yet powerful trick. When you find yourself on the hedonic treadmill, simply step off for a bit. When you hop back on, the simple things will be quite pleasurable once again.
It’s not much different from being apart from a friend or loved one for a long time. When you do see the again, you appreciate the time with them much more. It’s the same principle.
Fear and Confidence
Seneca identifies something profound in human nature. Our fear of an experience can often be much worse than the experience itself. The loss or “going without” that we get so anxious about — usually isn’t unbearable. We can bear it. And when it happens, we do bear it.
Furthermore, when we do get through a loss or tough experience, we come out of it feeling stronger. We’ve endured and survived. We’ve faced our fear, and it wasn’t as bad as we feared it might be. We’ve proven to ourselves that we are strong enough to get through it. We were strong enough all along. Making it through what we feared we couldn’t merely proves to us how much we can go through.
It’s much like former Navy Seal, ultra-marathoner, bestselling author, and all-around badass David Goggins points out in his book Can’t Hurt Me:
Sadly, most of us give up when we’ve only given around 40 percent of our maximum effort. Even when we feel like we’ve reached our absolute limit, we still have 60 percent more to give….Once you know that to be true, it’s simply a matter of stretching your pain tolerance, letting go of your identity and all your self-limiting stories, so you can get to 60 percent, then 80 percent and beyond without giving up.
Once you figure this out, we don’t need to fear nearly as much as you do. Once you realize that you can adapt and endure through the fear — the fear gives way to self-confidence. That self-confidence is one of the most valuable things you can cultivate because it will help you face new and greater challenges. That’s how you grow.
Hardship Progression: How to Put it to Use
Like any training, getting yourself used to hardships is all about small, manageable steps. Start with little experiments in going through things the hard way, and build up over time.
The exercises can be many different kinds, but the formula is the same. Expose yourself to mild to medium hardships for a short, predetermined amount of time. After that time, go back to your normal, comfortable way of doing things. At that point, what used to feel norma and neutral will feel like a relief and a privilege. You’ll appreciate what you used to take for granted. You will have hacked the hedonic treadmill.
Take the Hard Way
One great way to introduce this practice into your day is to “take the hard way.” When you’ve got mundane things to do, see if there’s a slightly harder way you could take to do them. Here’s an example.
I travel a lot for business, so I spend a lot of time in hotels. When I do, I choose to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Sometimes, this isn’t much of a hardship — like when my room is on the 2nd floor. But other times, like when I was on the 8th floor, it’s more difficult. But I commit to it as a practice to help me appreciate my normal days. On the final trip up to my room, I take the elevator. I appreciate it a lot more.
There are many variations on taking the hard way to try. Try walking or biking to places that you’d normally drive to. Wash some clothes by hand. There are many opportunities. Just take a look at your normal activities that rely on convenience, and take that convenience out by adding in a bit of your own toil and sweat.
Deprive Yourself A Little
Another way to condition your mind for hardship is to bring it about in the form of immediate deprivation. Look at something that you take for granted — something that gives you pleasure or prevents some discomfort. Then remove it for a bit. When you bring it back in, you’ll appreciate it all the more.
A great venue to test this out is your diet. There are two different approaches you can try — depending on your level of comfort and health.
The first thing you can try is fasting. Obviously, don’t try this without getting a clean bill of health that will allow fasting. For one day, drink only water and tea or coffee without creamer or sweetener. Don’t eat breakfast, lunch, or a snack. By the afternoon (or sooner), you’ll begin feeling hunger pangs. They’ll be uncomfortable. You’ll want to eat, you’ll want a tasty drink. But push yourself not to give in. Then eat dinner as you normally would. You’ll get more pleasure out of that meal than you have in a long time.
If fasting is a bridge too far, there’s another approach you can try. Eat like an old-world peasant. Strip your diet down to simply rice, beans, and unseasoned vegetables for a day or two. Rather than carrots or broccoli in a dressing, just eat the raw veggies — no spicing it up. Drink plain, lukewarm water. Keep things bland and austere. Then eat a regular meal with seasoning, sauce, and all that jazz. Notice how much better it tastes than usual. Notice how you were able to get by on bland, minimal stuff all day. Feel a bit better about your mental fortitude.
Shock Your System
A third way to put yourself through some hardship is to shock your system. Endure something that seems painful or difficult to endure for a short period of time.
Cold showers are a great way to get started. Take your normal shower, but then turn the water temperature down until it’s all the way cold. See how long you can stand it. Breathe. Push yourself to endure it — knowing that it’s not cold enough to give you frostbite or hypothermia. It’s just uncomfortable.
Another great exercise to shock your system is the wall sit. Get up next to a wall, and act as if you’re going to sit down on an imaginary chair with your back against the wall. Once you get to where your thighs are parallel to the ground, sit there. Within seconds, your legs will begin to feel it. You’ll experience muscle fatigue and your brain will tell you to get back up. Don’t. See how long you can handle it. Push yourself to go longer each time.
Build Your Confidence
As you begin the practice of voluntary hardships, you should start to feel mentally stronger. Each hardship endured will build your confidence in yourself. You’ll begin to see that toughness pop up in other venues, like work or relationships. As long as you keep it up to some degree, you’ll continue to keep that confidence.