Seneca and the Sea or How to hack your hedonic adaptation by sailing across an Ocean
Before setting off on this trip I read an article by Mr Money Mustache on hacking hedonic adaptation and his tips on prolonging the ‘happiness bump’ or temporary thrill one gets from a new purchase or life upgrade. The idea behind is that everyone has a happiness baseline, and each shiny new upgrade gets you a temporary hit of dopamine which subsides soon after. Then you need more, and more, and your happiness baseline starts incorporating all this new shiny stuff and you forget how to appreciate the small but good things in life. Some people take this to the extreme, becoming addicted to that ‘dopamine hit’, and they need to up the antes every time to get the bump, creating risky behavior. In the case of Mr Money Mustache, that risk is always expressed in financial terms, but it can be any kind of behavior.
I come from a tech background in Silicon Valley, where a majority of my peers were concerned about managing this behavior as they became more successful. Excessive amounts of money and enlightenment are not obviously compatible. How do you stay grounded when you can buy pretty much everything, including the illusion of enlightenment?
Enter the Stoics. Seneca taught his students to purposely and periodically seek experiences that would create hardship in order to clear and reset the baseline for experiencing the finer things in life. This also has the effect of creating familiarity with hard situations, eliminating fear of failure, and building adaptability and familiarity for worst case scenarios.
The theory is that one can reset the baseline hedonic adaptation by experiencing hardship, even if it’s on purpose.
So what does this have to do with sailing across the Pacific Ocean? A lot, it turns out. The ocean scale is big, bigger than you can imagine before getting out there and the boat, no matter how ‘big’ it seems at the boat show or on the bay, is so small. The wind and the waves that move you across the ocean have their own incessant rhythm and movement, and you have to adapt. It never stops, it doesn’t slow down, and every day life has to adapt to it. It’s like being on a giant stability ball rolled around and kicked by your most hard core trainer, except it’s 24/7 and you don’t leave the gym after an hour. Eating, drinking, sleeping, brushing your teeth, become this choreographed counter-balance ballet that’s sometimes successful and sometimes not. It’s like someone constantly tried to kick your drink out of your hand, or tackle your legs. Some sailors call this ‘getting your sea legs’. Then there’s there’s the lack of sleep due to hourly squalls during the night. You really learn to appreciate naps when you can take them, and live without for days when you can’t. Your skin absorbs the salt and your hands become slippery and lose their grip no matter the wash and shower schedule, as a matter of fact everything on the boats gets coated in it from the salty air. This goes on for day after day, no break, no stopping until you reach your destination, and the Ocean keeps throwing you challenges, just to show you who’s boss.
It’s the perfect way to reset your hedonic adaptation. There is no escaping the situation in the middle of it if you get tired or uncomfortable. You start dreaming about how good simple things will feel like sleeping on a flat dry surface or drinking water without a straw. But you have to have patience until your landfall in a place that looks the most beautiful you have ever seen after weeks at sea. That first crisp glass of $6 Prosecco tasted better than La Grande Damme – and that says a lot coming from a Champagne obsessed nut like me. The first bite of the Hawaiian steak that made the trip with us tasted divine, and even the lack of luxuries or modern infrastructure at our destination is forgiven. Our baseline is reset, and all experiences forward are life upgrades. After all, we’re safe and sound on our little atoll, such a welcome respite in the middle of that big Ocean.