Hedonistic Adaptation

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.

Thoughts Provoked by a Fellow Blogger: Creativity and Emotion


I had imagined that having a blog would lead to a back and forth with others of similar interests, and it seems that is finally happening to some degree.  Two instances of inter blogging have provoked some thoughts leading to the following reactions. This is the first one.

A fellow Keatsian blogger discussed in a post and in a response to my comment that a state of depression fueled Keats’s creativity and that adhering to the golden mean would vitiate the creative expression of writers, who, like Keats, experience intense feelings and pour them into their art. The question of whether moderation (and its goal of tranquility) is at odds with creativity has puzzled me for a while.  I am almost led to propose a conundrum: if everything is to be taken in moderation does that include moderation?  Leaving such tail-chasing aside, I would agree that an emotional maelstrom might appear an artistic catalyst. Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendent utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” Similarly, Keats,  in a poem included in a letter to his brother George, described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person.  Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort of fever and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt.”  It might seem, then, that there is an exception to the golden rule of moderation when it comes to writers or other creators—that for them, being in the thrall of non-moderate emotion is important.  I, however, don’t think that is exactly the case.

First, the truly agitated person, spinning in giddy delight or sunk into despair, does not do great work, generally. Personally, I could think of nothing less conducive to productive writing than just having found out some news that would send me into the transports of joy (whatever such news might be I have trouble imagining) or just having received one of those inevitable and dreadful phone calls.  I might try to escape those high or low feelings by writing, but they would not be driving or aiding the process. I think writers get into the zone, such as the state of mind that Keats described for himself and that such a state is a form of tranquility because the mind is engaged and life is purposeful.  Simply stated, for those who like to write, there is nothing that feels better than getting lost in the act of writing, which is a focused but not immoderate emotional state–it is not one of exaltation or despair.   That is not to say that Keats did not know suffering, feel depressed, and wish for death. Without his loses, he would not have written what he wrote, would not have been who he was. As he described it, one can only know what is tested on the pulses. He knew those experiences, but he did not feel them while writing, and he struggled, by recourse to his philosophy, to keep his head above them—to fight his “horrid morbidity of temperament.” That is the most anyone can do, unless a sage (Seneca admitted that such persons were scarcely to be found).

Therefore, aiming at moderation and the resulting tranquility will not ward off misery at all times. We will still suffer and have enough experience to supply our work, should we turn poetic. With the tool of our reason and our goal of tranquility, there is some way out at least and we need not succumb to ragged emotions, irrationally charging around like King Lear, seething with anger, gnawed by remorse, or simply whining and complaining.