Hedonic Editing Can Save Your Life: Here’s How

Let’s get a quick housekeeping chore out of the way right up front. It won’t take long and it’ll help make everything much cleaner as we go.

That chore is this: When we use the term “hedonic,” we’re referring to the states of pleasantness and unpleasantness. The idea is binary: Hedonics considers whether a stimulus evokes a positive or negative emotional/physical/psychological sensation.

There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

And since we’re getting unpleasantness out of the way early, let’s tend to one more housekeeping task right now.

That task is this: Pleasantness and unpleasantness are all part of the normal vicissitudes of life. I won’t get into the philosophy of whether you can have one without the other. And I won’t bother questioning whether every human life has at least some good stuff and some bad stuff.

For our purposes here, we’ll just take as given that we know what pleasantness and unpleasantness are, and we’ll assume outright that pleasantness and unpleasantness are gonna be there in life.

Ain’t nothing we can really do about experiencing good stuff and bad stuff. We all get some of each, and we usually know damn sure when we’re getting one versus the other. That’s my experience anyway. If you’ve figured out a way to erase all unpleasantness from life, kindly leave the secret in the comments section below.

Despite this (unpleasant) truth, what we can do is manipulate the arrangement of how we experience pleasantness and unpleasantness.

By arranging our lives according to some simple prescriptions, we can dramatically enhance the sensations derived from pleasant things, and dramatically reduce the sensations of unpleasantness. And we can collectively attain more net happiness.

That’s a nifty trick. It’s called “hedonic editing.” And hedonic editing can save your life.

Hedonic Editing Can Save Your Life: Here's How

Chores

The claim I’ll make here is straightforward.

  1. You can easily make your life better and make yourself happier by adopting simple hedonic editing techniques.
  1. By arranging your life into a happier pattern, your outlook and relationships and interactions will improve.
  1. Enhanced relations and optimism will manifest in lower emotional distress and psychological burden.
  1. The physical result of an improved emotional state is lowered blood pressure, improved sleep and better overall health.
  1. Hedonic editing can save your life.

Tasks

The grunt work behind hedonic editing was done by Richard Thaler (author of Nudge and Misbehaving, two excellent books), whose inquiry began way back before Millennials moved into their parents’ houses for the first time.

His findings relate to how people experience positive and negative stimuli. Which findings became memorialized into a set of basic prescriptions that just about anybody can apply anywhere at any time. And, you know, probably should.

These hedonic editing “strategies” follow from Prospect Theory (courtesy of Nobel winner Danny Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, another excellent book that contains the original paper on Prospect Theory), which most people know as describing the notion that the pleasure obtained from a gain is “smaller” than the suffering that results from an equivalent loss. Which is a pretty good summary. But there’s a little more to it that we need for our purposes.

The below graphic illustrates the essential principles. First, take a look at what you already know. The curve heading up and to the right (i.e., for good stuff) doesn’t travel as steeply as the curve heading down and to the left (i.e., for bad stuff). This reflects the fact that we humans hate losing, say $100, more than we like receiving it.

Second, check out the shape of both the “good stuff” and “bad stuff” curves. As more good or bad stuff is piled on in a given period or experience, the marginal impact of that additional good or bad stuff is smaller than the impact of the initial good or bad stimuli. Getting punched in the face the first time sucks worse than getting punched in the face the second time during any given fistfight, for instance. We get less sensitive to incremental bad and good stuff as it gets added to a given experience. By the fifth punch to the face, you hardly even notice the sting anymore.

Combined, those two observations about our hedonic curves yield a bunch of strategies we can use for making life more better and less worser all at once.

Prospect Theory Graph
Prospect Theory Graph

Recess

Those strategies are:

Hedonic Editing Trick #1

Multiple (smaller) hedonic gains yield greater overall happiness than one (larger) hedonic gain. If you can choose between separating fun stuff into distinct events rather than lumping them all into one big fun-splosion, go with the multiple smaller fun-tivities for maximum happiness.

This is because of the diminishing marginal gains associated with incremental good stuff occurring at a given time (i.e., the flattening out of the good stuff curve). By having one small good experience, you climb the steep part of the good stuff curve and get a lot of happiness “rise” for your experience “run.” After your experience has run its course and your reference point has reset to “zero,” you can experience the second small good thing and rise up the steepest part of the curve again. You thus maximize your overall happiness rise for the total horizontal run of the two experiences.

If, on the other hand, you were to lump the two good-speriences together, that second good thing would carry you onto the flatter part of the curve, and your total rise would be less. Booooo.

Hedonic Editing Trick #2

The opposite holds for bad stuff. Multiple hedonic losses are worse for happiness than just one big hedonic crap fest. If you’ve gotta see the in-laws and get a root canal and read your lonely cousin’s Twilight fan fiction novella, you should do them all at once. Or at least as close to one another as you can.

The reason is that, after a certain point, piling on additional losses is no longer felt very much. I think we’ve all been there: After a particularly crap-infested day, one more terrible event barely even seems to be noticed; by the fifth chapter of that Twilight fan fiction your soul is already so dead you could read 15 more without knowing the difference.

That’s because the bad stuff curve flattens out as you move outward from your “zero” or “neutral” reference point. Yes, bad stuff still sucks. But it sucks way less if done all at once than if spread out.

Hedonic Editing Trick #3

The first two strategies are kinda no-brainers. But the next two strategies are a little more complicated because they involve mixing uppers and downers. Which is always tricky to do successfully. So bear with.

If you’re staring down two events, one of which is a supremely terrible thing and the other of which is a good (but not great) thing, then you should try to experience them as separately as possible. Spread them out across days or otherwise engineer your experience so the good and bad are not commingled.

The reason is because, when you experience the really big bad thing, you’ll slide way down on that bad stuff curve…down far enough that the curve will start to flatten. If you experience the small good thing simultaneously, that small good thing will serve to offset some of the slide down the bad stuff curve. But it’ll counteract at the margin, where the curve is relatively flat. So, from a net hedonic perspective, you won’t get much of a benefit from that good thing.

Instead, if you separate the two, you’ll experience the bad thing fully. And it’ll suck. But you’ll only experience slightly more net suckiness than if you’d mixed the good and bad together at once. Then later, after your hedonic starting point will have had a chance reset to zero, you’ll experience the small good thing and you’ll get to experience moving up the steep part of the good stuff curve. So your net hedonic outcome will be better if you separate the two events rather than mix them.

Hedonic Editing Trick #4

This final strategy is the converse of strategy 3. If you’re going to experience an exceptionally good thing and a small bad thing, you should try to combine them as much as you can or experience them as closely to one another as possible.

If, for instance, you experience the small bad thing alone, you’ll slide down the bad stuff curve just a little bit. But your slide will be on the steepest part of the curve, so you’ll really feel the burn. Then, later on, when you do the really good thing, you’ll start from zero and climb the good curve up into its flat portion, essentially “wasting” some of that good thing’s goodness.

Instead, by experiencing the bad and good things simultaneously, you’ll slide up the good stuff curve (at its steepest grade, where it’s worth the most), and the little bad thing will just cut off your uphill run where the grade starts to flatten out, contributing only a small blunting effect to your happiness. So you’ll do better with your overall hedonic result than if you experienced the events separately.

Dessert

Now you know why I had to get all the housekeeping chores out of the way early in this post. I wanted to concentrate them at the front of the article so that (small) pain would be fully offset and then some by the immensely awesome gain you got from the back half of the post, and you’d stay on the steepest part of the good curve, where you belong.

I did it to make you happy.

I did it to save your life.

I hedonically edited for you.

You’re welcome.

Luchadores, how do you make use of hedonic editing strategies? Any ways you can do better? Have you ever read Twilight fan fiction? Are you crazy? Holla!

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