How Quickly We Adapt: The Case of Obama

The thrill of positive events fades over time.

Posted May 07, 2010

On January 4, 2008, the day after Barack Obama stunningly and handily defeated John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucuses, I was delighted to read the following in a column by every liberal's favorite conservative, David Brooks: "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this," he wrote, setting aside political ideology and party preference. "An African-American man wins a closely fought campaign in a pivotal state...This is a huge moment."

Do you remember what that felt like - the moment you realized that an African-American candidate, peddling hope and change, had a bona fide shot at winning the White House? Notwithstanding your party affiliation - was that not electrifying?

And if you happened to be an Obama supporter - do you recall the exhilaration of the mounting successes of his presidential campaign and the ultimate thrill of Obama winning? Were you so moved by the Inauguration that you cried?

Millions of us were. Yet how quickly we forget.

If you're crying now, it's probably because you've lost your job or your kid is ill or you spilled soda on your laptop.

If you're happy now, perhaps it's because you're falling in love or your favorite baseball team just won or you got upgraded to first class.

Psychological scientists have discovered that the impact of positive events - no matter how wonderful or life changing - fades over time. Through a process called hedonic adaptation, our joy and pride at Obama's inauguration decline more and more each day, and are replaced by quotidian concerns - parking problems, spats with coworkers, delicious dinners, and stolen kisses. Moreover, day by day, we grow more and more accustomed to the presence of an African-American president in the White House, while our aspirations for him and his administration steadily rise, perhaps unrealistically so. Now, his presidency today is simply a given, and our wonder at his achievement is replaced by frustrations as to where he may be going wrong and our belief that we know how he can be a more effective president. And if we already value him as a strong and visionary leader, then our aspirations rise yet higher. We may think: OK, he's been good - but why can't he be great?

Because of hedonic adaptation, we are no longer awed by the election of 2008. Instead, we're jaded. But although it would be pleasant to savor once again that sense of awe and thrill - which sometimes does return, if only fleetingly - our human capacity to get used to things is undeniably adaptive. If we didn't become accustomed to positive changes in the world - if we didn't continually raise our aspirations - our success as individuals, as communities, and as a great nation would be severely limited. We may lose the awe and thrill but, in return, we get to preserve and reinforce the motivation to form a more perfect union.