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. Should we try to discourage driving every day, or should we instigate car-free days? The latter may be much more fun. I call this approach Creme Egg Libertarianism — the idea that people might be better off when free to do what they like, but not all the time.
Certainly we are evolutionarily wired to notice contrasts, not constants. Folk wisdom tells us ‘variety is the spice of life’ and ‘a change is as good as a rest’. Most religions prescribe alternate periods of feasting and fasting, rather than a monotonous diet. Variety matters. As Nassim Taleb observes, the perfect temperature for human comfort is not static: we’re happiest at a slightly high temperature moderated by a random cooling breeze. This is why it feels so damned good when you open the windows in your house. It also explains what’s fundamentally unsatisfying about air conditioning and hermetically sealed buildings. Yet, in the words of my chum Graham Fink: ‘Instead of adapting to our environment as we evolved to do, we are lazily adapting our environment to suit us.’ Or what we think suits us.
As air conditioning shows, we are getting this wrong. Look at how we repeatedly react to technology. ‘Aha,’ we say, ‘this new thing means we should do more of the new thing and less of the old thing it replaces.’ In fact we should probably react to most new technology by doing more of the new thing and more of another thing which is the opposite of the new thing. Digital music led to an explosion in concert-going and the revival of vinyl. Videoconferencing shouldn’t be seen just as a means to save money on travel and real estate — it should also be complemented by employees spending more time in the pub.
That bloke Kahneman was undoubtedly right. There is a kind of mental crop rotation which is good for our happiness. Instead the world is increasingly designed for mental monoculture.