I have been on holiday for two weeks. Well, not quite. You see, a bloke I once met told me that, when you take a long holiday, it’s good to work for a couple of days in the middle, as the contrast will cause you to enjoy your holiday more overall. Since the bloke in question was the psychologist and Nobel laureateDaniel Kahneman, I decided to try this. Unexpectedly, it worked. The principle derives from an idea labelled ‘hedonic adaptation’: the notion that our level of happiness will return to a baseline over time, regardless of circumstances, when our environment remains constant. Put bluntly, it explains why nobody lives permanently on a superyacht, and why, after 14 days in Barbados, you are really quite chipper about the prospect of flying back to Dorking.
At this point, richer (i.e. older) Spectator readers may have spent a few joyous weeks in their cottage in Cornwall, and are considering decamping there permanently. Be careful: it may be that, unbeknownst to you, the most enjoyable aspect of your cottage is the contrast between it and your main home.
Someone who clearly understood the process of hedonic adaptation was the late Sir James Goldsmith, who remarked: ‘When a man marries his mistress, he creates an immediate job vacancy.’ Correspondingly, when a man moves into his holiday home, he may create an immediate urge to travel somewhere else.
What’s interesting about hedonic adaptation is that it is an unavoidable facet of human perception, yet plays almost no part in the formulation of legislation or economic policy, where people pretend to a spurious constancy. The act of looking at the world through a lens of averages often leads people to focus on optimising B, when the better and more resilient solution might be a mixture of A and C.