Japan — and a case of hedonic adaptation

Having quit my job recently, I promptly granted myself the summer off to recharge. (Hey, you can take the girl out of Europe, but you apparently cannot take the belief that a proper summer holiday is an inalienable right and that the U.S. is pretty much a land of the barbarians when it comes to this issue out of the girl.)

Ahem. Anyway, I find myself in Japan, a place I’ve only previously experienced through manga and movies. So it was with wild over-excitement and a dash of trepidation that I approached Tokyo. Think of the fabulously hilarious things I could write about getting things entirely wrong in an environment where I neither speak nor read the language! And, sure, I now have a healthy collection of tales of spectacularly stupid things I did on arrival and, well, continue to do throughout my trip.

But I’m actually more interested in noticing a case of what MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls “hedonic adaptation.” You’ve experienced this too. It essentially describes the condition of adapting to your environment as time passes. In his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, Ariely conducted various tests which suggest that if we were smart, we’d space out the things we like (take a break during a massage, redo our home little by little rather than in one big, furniture-buying splurge) so that we get a bump of renewed pleasure each time. On the other hand, we’d be better off getting shot of chores we don’t like doing all at once. Ripping off the bandaid all at once smarts less when it comes to less literal pain like filing taxes, too. In one experiment, Ariely concluded that after a certain amount of time any overweening joy or pain subsides and experiencers settles back into more or less the same state they were in before, be they recent lottery winner or new paraplegic.

Now I certainly haven’t been in Japan long enough to experience a full dose of hedonic adaptation. It’s all alien and different enough that my western eyes seem destined to be out on stalks for a long time yet. But I have already noticed my behavior morphing from unblinkingly wide-eyed, slightly overwhelmed and oh-my-god-is-this-really-happening to a more comfortable stance. Now I find myself zipping into subway cars with nary a second glance. (Then zipping out of them at the next stop on figuring out it was the wrong train. Sadly I don’t think hedonic adaptation means you’re any more likely to get things right.)

Now the question becomes how to capture and bottle this state: that sense of achievement and exhilaration that only comes when your senses are firing on all cylinders and your head spins a la Carrie in an effort to process every visual, sound, movement, person, thing, yet it’s not overwhelming, it’s just brilliant. (Photographs of some of the weird yet familiar sights in Tokyo shown here.) That’s what makes travel so addictive and can make the daily grind seem such a drudge. Remember that heartbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning article about parents who forgot their child was in the back of the car, who then died after being baked in the sun? Shortly after reading that piece, I remember coming to on the subway car on my way home from work. Just a regular day, and yet my last genuine recollection was of walking out of my office building. The rest had been autopilot. And autopilot isn’t something that happens when you’re slightly expecting a ticker tape parade to welcome your exit from the subway.

So on return to New York, I hereby solemnly swear to notice and appreciate the small details that make the city unique and great and weird and interesting. You may only be able to visit somewhere for the first time once, but that’s no reason to get all blase. Thanks for the reminder, Tokyo.

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3 thoughts on “Japan — and a case of hedonic adaptation

  1. hello gregorylent, i’d love to be able to live this existence for, well, ever. sadly, even european style summer holidays must come to an end. i start a new job on sept 1, but swear i’m attempting to make the most of every second of my time out.

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