These two ‘superpowers’ in your brain can kick into high gear during quarantine, making the adjustment more tolerable
With most of the country in a temporary quarantine, the abrupt change has proven to be an unsurprisingly tough transition. Even after we move past the current restrictive lockdowns, social distancing guidelines are likely to become the “new normal” for the foreseeable future. It’s a reality that feels both daunting and uncharted, but it will get easier to adjust to. That’s not just an optimistic point of view: It’s something that has been proven time and time again through “hedonic adaptation,” a psychological process in which people adapt so well to both positive and negative changes that they inevitably return to a stable state of happiness.
When applied to positive life changes such as finding new love, the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation is regularly touted as a negative side effect. It’s the reason new relationships may not feel as lustful after a while, or why the thrill of a job promotion tends to wear off after a few increased paychecks. But just as positive life changes are less potent when it comes to sparking joy over time, hedonic adaptation causes the inverse to occur when negative life changes come into play. Most people who go through negative life changes, like a breakup, will eventually climb back up to a stable state of contentment.
“When things stop changing so quickly, we’re able to start getting used to it.”
“We have to remind ourselves that adaptation is the rule of human existence, not the exception,” says Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and the author of Ricochet: What to Do When Change Happens to You. “Adaptation is the one thing everyone has been doing since the day we were born.”
For the most part, hedonic adaptation is a passive and automatic process — a psyche-saving system that happens all on its own in the background of the brain. How quickly we adapt depends on a few key factors.
“In the positive domain, to slow down hedonic adaptation, you want variety, surprise, and novelty,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. In the negative domain, avoiding those same three factors — variety, surprise, and novelty — is what will help to speed up the adaptation process.
“During the first week of the pandemic, there was so much happening. We just could not adapt,” Lyubomirsky says. The country was being inundated with surprising, new information while business and social guidelines changed at a head-spinning pace. But as the weeks went on, Lyubomirsky began to hear from people that quarantine was beginning to feel easier. “My hypothesis is that it’s due to adaptation kicking in,” she says. “When things stop changing so quickly, we’re able to start getting used to it.”
It’s the people who focus mainly on why a change happened who tend to be the slowest to adapt.
That said, the climb back up to a happiness baseline is slower when you’re recovering from a negative life change than when you’re coming down from a positive one. “It’s normal to experience a spike in negative emotions in the first week or two. After that, you start to normalize,” Tasler says. Even if you begin to feel a slight improvement in those first couple of weeks, it takes somewhere between four to eight weeks for hedonic adaptation to really kick in. “Then, over the next two to 16 weeks, you will start to return back to normal. By three to six months most people tend to be back to their baseline happiness,” he says.
Of course, this timeline varies widely depending on both the individual’s circumstance and how they respond to it. One group is generally the slowest to adapt, Tasler says: the people who focus mainly on why a change happened.
“We don’t know why this pandemic happened,” he says. “So a much more productive way to get through it is to ask, ‘What can I do to pursue meaning out of this situation? What can I do to be of service to the people around me and become stronger as a result of this?’”
These are the people using their 3D printers and sewing machines to make masks and personal protective equipment for health care workers. It’s people like DJ D-Nice who’s spinning records and boosting morale every day for hundreds of thousands of people on Instagram Live. It’s the volunteers delivering groceries to at-risk communities and the people buying breakfast for first responders.
Hedonic adaptation isn’t the only neurological superpower that can kick into gear during quarantine life. A disorienting change can trigger something called “meaning maintenance” in the anterior cingulate cortex (also known as the brain’s error detection system), Tasler says.
“This part of the brain that lies dormant for the most part in your normal, predictable life,” Tasler explains. “But anytime a wrench is thrown into your routine or something confusing and unexpected happens, it kicks into action and makes people more insightful. It increases the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts that may have been right in front of you the whole time that you’ve never noticed before.” Because things have gone awry, this part of the brain is now working overtime to create new and perhaps even unexpected connections that will help to restore meaning and order to life — hence the term “meaning maintenance.”
To put this into context, Tasler points to the memes currently circulating about how Sir Isaac Newton and Shakespeare produced some of their most notable work while in quarantine. Most people might credit accomplishments like these to an increase in free time, but Tasler sees it differently. “I think their brains were working differently than they had been during normal times because they were forced into this unexpected environment,” he says.
Both hedonic adaptation and meaning maintenance happen gradually. Even though you may not feel like a changed person overnight, know that these neurological lifesavers are slowly, steadily working in the background of your brain, helping you make sense of your new environment and adjust to it.
“This change might be uncomfortable, but you will get through it,” Tasler says. “One way or another, you will adapt. You are good at this. You are wired for this.”