Why Television Commercials Increase Viewing Pleasure

by Stephen Mills on July 5, 2010

“Despite the fact that external forces are constantly changing our life goals, happiness for most people is a relatively constant state. Regardless of how good things get, people always report about the same level of happiness.” — Wikipedia

The answer to the title question on TV commercials will be found later in the article.

When painful or pleasurable things happen to a person in life, when their circumstances change for the better or worse, there is generally a corresponding short-term increase or decrease in happiness.  But the person generally returns to their previous level of happiness in a relatively short period of time.  The effect on happiness is transitory and psychologists call it hedonic adaptation.  For painful experiences this is a good thing, but for pleasurable experiences it leads to a never-ending need for more.

Our fancy homes, cars, and electronics just don’t do it for us for very long.  Once we get what we want, we will just need something bigger or better or with more features.   While we are stuck with this feature of our psychology, Dan Ariely in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, provides some tips to make hedonic adaptation work for you.

Tips For Working With Hedonic Adaptation

As it turns out, interrupting the adaptation resets it.  Interrupting something unpleasant, taking a break for example, resets the adaptation you have already made to the unpleasant experience and so you have to experience the initial unpleasantness all over again.  Interrupting a pleasant experience also resets the adaptation and so you get to experience the initial pleasantness all over again.

Don’t Interrupt Unpleasant Experiences

Just get it over with as soon as possible.  I really need this advice because I tend to constantly interrupt unpleasant tasks in an attempt at avoidance or procrastination.  If you are cleaning the house (and you find house cleaning unpleasant) and you take a tea break, when you start up the cleaning again you will find the experience more unpleasant than if you had continued without the tea break.

For longer lasting experiences, the best thing to do is to compact any unpleasant changes into a short a time span as possible.  If you have an income loss, move into the smaller home or apartment and cut all the unnecessary expenses at once.  Rip the band aid off.  While moving more gradually may seem like the more palatable option, it simply prolongs the misery and stretches out the adaptation time; you will suffer longer.

Interrupt Pleasant Experiences

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, you should interrupt pleasant experiences.  A rather interesting example of this is that people actually enjoy television show more when they are interrupted by commercials.  An experiment showed that while watching an uninterrupted show, pleasure levels decreased as the show continued.  When the show was interrupted by commercials, the pleasure levels increased.  Who would have figured that one?!

For longer lasting experiences, you should spread out the changes over as long a time span as possible.  In this case you want to adjust gradually and prolong the changes.

Look for Temporary or Fleeting Experiences

Things that give us a constant stream of experience are the very things most susceptible to hedonic adaptation.  You very quickly get used to the homes, cars, and electronics that are the staple of modern consumer culture and the effect wears off.  On the other hand a variety of temporary or fleeting experiences don’t have the same problem.  A trip to the beach, a walk in the park, a date with your partner while seemingly much less permanent, are the kinds of experiences that can actually lead to lasting happiness.  When in doubt choose experiences over things and shorter over longer.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua Noerr July 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

Stephan, this is a very good article and really made me think about things in a new way. Yes, it seems counter intuitive, but interrupting a pleasant experience so that we have to experience the initial pleasure point all over again.

If this hedonic adaptation can make unpleasant experiences worse, then flipping it can make pleasant experiences even better.

Thank you for sharing and cheers on a great post!


Mike Dooley July 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

I recently obtained teh first season of Lost, and found myself enjoying it greatly as I sped through episode after episode, only stopping to sleep and go to work. I found, though, that after a while, I grew exhausted by the show despite the interesting plot and fascinating character interactions.

Originally, I rationalized my waning interest in a disgust for the non-realism of the show or the lack of overall character development or the constant Lord of the Flies-esque fighting. However, this article makes me think my pleasure wasn’t feigning because of the inherent attributes of the show, but because I wasn’t taking the break I needed between episode to truly draw out the enjoyment.

Thanks for pointing all of this out, and I will certainly take more time between episodes for the rest of the seasons!
Mike Dooley´s last blog post ..Don’t Hesitate To Be Amazed


Miranda Cruz July 8, 2010 at 8:29 am

I watched the first season of LOST. Not religiously though. I found the plot like has become unrealistic. Then it’s not so fun to watch anymore.


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