The Downside of Hedonic Adaptation at a Scaling Startup

The resiliency of the human mind is an absolutely astounding phenomenon. Evolution has given us the power to suffer massive, lifelong injuries, lose the things most precious to us in the world, have our hopes & dreams dashed, move from environments or geographies we say we love to others we find detestable and, over time, achieve the same happiness levels we reported prior to these traumas. This internal, happiness-reseting mechanism consistently makes the horrific (a divorce, the loss of a sense, the death of a family member, etc) into a surmountable problem for the vast majority of our species.

Psychologists call this trait hedonic adaptation and there have been lots of good studies on the topic.

The downside is that this same property enables us to mentally and emotionally lose sight of wonderfully positive things in our life and reset our happiness levels back to their historic status. Particularly in scaling startups, this adaptation can be a silent killer.

I brought this up a few months back at our SEOmoz all-hands meeting when we announced paid paid vacation. My concern wasn’t that anyone would feel ungrateful or that the benefit would go unused, but rather that we’d soon forget the times before we had this luxury and get into the same old state of happiness no matter what good things, internal or external, happened at the company. Being aware of this facet of our humanity could, I hoped, provide some protection from the reset mechanism.

As any organization scales, you’ll find that for founders, managers, individual contributors, and investors alike, it’s hard to keep perspective. Yeah, things may be tough today, but remember when we didn’t have any money? Remember when we were pretty sure this would be a sinking ship in two weeks time? Remember when we lost those two key engineers and had no idea how we’d recover?

If you’re anything like most people, the answer’s probably “No, I don’t remember,” at least, not in the emotionally resonant way that would make me appreciate all the good things that are happening now.

But, in my experience, a growing startup can’t succeed long term unless there’s both a recognition of the challenges as well as celebration of the wins. We are, by our nature, predisposed to concentrate on the negatives over the positives. I fight this in myself ALL THE TIME. I fought it half the day, today. If you can’t overcome that negativity and appreciate what’s improved, you’ll almost certainly see:

  • Team members constantly perceiving the grass as being greener somewhere else, and frequently jumping ship
  • Founders leaving the company because they believe it’s the situation, not their attitude, that’s causing their unhappiness
  • Investors losing faith because of the constant litany of problems and setbacks
  • Burnout of employees created artificially by a brain that’s hedonically adapting to the good stuff and over-emphasizing the bad
  • Evangelists of the product sensing this negativity and losing steam

I don’t have a foolproof solution to offer that can help stave off hedonic adaptation in the wrong direction, but I do know that awareness is the first step to reducing its impact. I’d also suggest taking some of the following steps, too:

  • Recognize & message small wins company-wide, even when they’re in the midst of bigger, crappy problems
  • Founders; tell the story from the start on a regular basis, even if it feels repetitive. The reminder of how bad the pain used to be compared to today will be a salve, and the journey is what makes startup life exciting, so don’t lose sight.
  • Keep track of the most painful moments and how they’ve been overcome – on the website, on the wall, on the intranet, or even just in a document you pull out at the annual holiday party.
  • If negativity continually emanates from a small number of people on the team, analyze whether you can afford to have them there. Even if they’re great producers, bad morale, burnout, and bad emotions can drag down a much larger organization faster than you can believe. A lot of times, holidays or moving to a new area of focus in the startup can work. Sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s time to say goodbye.
  • Work with team members on attitude as well as specific problems, and remember how hedonic adaptation functions – even making the circumstances or the environment better doesn’t improve happiness long term. You’ve got to find happiness independent of broken servers, failed code, an unsuccessful marketing campaign, or an investor passing on your deal. Raising satisfaction with work and life will make all of those better, but making all of those better may not raise satisfaction with work or life.

Seemingly insurmountable problems are easy to come by at startups. But, solutions are, too. The correlation between happiness and the day-to-day ups and downs can’t be direct. That’s guaranteed to fail in both directions. But if you can harness the power of hedonic adaptation to make the bad times OK and recognize the wins, the progress, and the natural human reset mechanism, you may be able to build a happier team and a better company.