Hedonic Adaptation is the human psychological trait to return to a base level of happiness. This is a powerful thing. This trait is what allows people to face hardship, and rebound. The loss of a limb, of a loved one can be devastating, and in all cases, life changing. In the wake of such an event, that initial base line is a determining factor in how the person recovers.
It is a powerful psychological trait, and in most situations, a benefit.
But Hedonic Adaptation works in both directions. Moments of happiness elevate us, but we return near to that base level.
I experienced this in my recent move to Portland. Bicycling around the city, exploring, everything was new, was different and exciting. The city-scape with its bridges over the river that divides the city and mix of warehouses and shining new glass construction was fascinating.
That was eight months ago. The presence of the river forces traffic onto the bridges which in turn act as choke-points; and the non-highway bridges are a pain because most are drawbridges, and the river is active with cargo ships. My commutes along these bridges provide me with unimpeded and lengthy views of the city - more spectacular now due to the fall colors. But, I have to remember to look. I have to make the conscious effort to see, instead of simply navigating the cars, other cyclists, and pedestrians in my way.
Of particular significance to this post is the effect that Hedonic Adaptation has on the acquisition of material possessions. That new car I buy? It becomes my new normal, and thus loses its initial appeal. My new house that I spent so much on and has a great view from the front bay windows? After a few months, I forget to even look outside.
This can create a situation called a Hedonic Treadmill, where the acquisition of goods makes me happy, but then fades - so I need to buy something new to bring me back up again. See the treadmill? I go and go and go, consuming, spending to achieve a fleeting happiness.
This is most pronounced in the Western World (read, First World). We buy, we consume, and by god we waste. That Hedonic Treadmill has us buying to make us happy - and maybe it does, but for how long? Do we need these things, or do we simply want them?
What sort of long-term effect does this continuous consumption have on us, as individuals? The 2008 debt crisis speaks to that.
How about as a country? We rip and rob the Third World of their raw resources so that we can acquire new things that have a limited lifespan of happiness.
What does this behavior tell us about ourselves as a species? What if we succeeded in raising all of Humanity up to First World standards so that everyone owned a house, and had a cell phone for every person in their family, and a laptop, and their own car? The Earth doesn't have enough resources to sustain even the small percentage of its total population who can afford those things.
Would we strip mine our solar system?
If history provides a glimpse into our future, I think the answer is pretty obvious.