Hedonistic adaptation poses the greatest impediment to tranquility. Modern psychology has coined that term to express how we become accustomed to the pleasurable and good things in life to the point of no longer being able to derive joy from them. The term is rather new and the notion is very old. Seneca, our non-resident voice of Roman Stoicism, pointed out that an insurmountable glitch with making pleasure your goal was that it wears out quickly and leaves a person wanting more of the unfulfilling stuff. As Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” better to have non-realized pleasure because “All human breathing passion” leaves “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Understanding the sordid underside of great pleasure and not making that the goal is not the hard part. The process of hedonistic adaptation curses us most when it gnaws away at our even moderate satisfaction with ordinary life, which might be a far better existence than any we had before. It might even be the apotheosis of our dreams, but we so adapt to it as to render it unsatisfactory. For example, consider a person who has just stepped out of jail; how beautiful the sky, how thrilling just to go out at will and walk to get a cup of coffee. The contrast form confinement to freedom does not last; we are adaptable. Roaming around at large becomes normal and no longer serves as a great joy or satisfactory to compensate for other vicissitudes of life. This insidious process undermines what would otherwise be endless tranquility for us. We can move to a better home, take a desired job, and acquire wealth and still wind up dissatisfied. On the flip side of adaptation, without it we could hardly function when grief and loss are involved. As Seneca says in praise of adaptation, “Nature has done better by us here than in any other department; knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary. If adversity kept the force of its first shock permanently, no one could bear it.”
What does Stoicism or others (who will he nil he must espouse the Stoic line in addressing this topic) to combat the ill effects of hedonistic adaptation? In answering, one might veer dangerously close to the cliché, “count your blessings.” Stated Stoically, use reason to confront emotion. It is easy to feel miserable and dissatisfied, but we can think. So, evaluate the options; consider how much vain hoping and expecting have undermined your tranquility; query whether opportunities to complain have fueled the perception that circumstances are lacking; think about what went before and what is possible or likely to happen remembering that death is always lurking and that what has happened to others to can happen to you; consider what is within your control and what is not. Under that last line of consideration, if there are things to fix within your control do so — otherwise use the devious process for your own purposes and adapt your emotions to what your reason prescribes.