Don’t Squander The Power of Adaptation

Over the weekend I read all 73 posts of Arctic Dream, a blog written by the family who took a DIY sabbatical from their comfortable American life and spent a year living on a small Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with only 180 residents. Besides quaint stories of smoking fish, there were some life lessons:

And that’s probably our biggest lesson from this year: people adapt very fast — much faster than they think. The new normal sets in and new routines established quickly.

They had no car. No cell phone. No TV. The village had no cafe, no Wal-mart/Target, not even fresh beef. But they were very happy. From the post Learning To Live With Less:

Humans have an amazing skill: the ability to adapt to a new environment without affecting our mental well being. Our ancestors honed this skill for millions of years before we emerged and became the most adaptable species ever to roam the earth. But too often, we forget that we have this skill, this genetic gift, and we squander it and make decisions in life as if we’d fall apart under adversity. And many of us sacrifice gravely in order to “maintain standard of living.”

My feeling is that humans can adapt very quickly, but they usually only find this out if they are forced to. Studies have found that those with permanent disabilities like being confined to a wheelchair are often quite happy. Conjoined twins tend to be happy the way they are. Adaptation also works both ways. People who earn more than $60,000 don’t get any happier.

However, if we are given the option, usually we’ll stay with the status quo. But think of how much more flexible your life would be if you were more confident of your ability to adapt. You could live in a smaller house, live in a new state, live in a new country! You could drive a used car, drive one less car, or have no car at all. It’d feel weird at first, but you’d adapt and still be happy. By spending less, you could build some F-you money. Instead of constantly fretting about losing the steady paycheck of your current so-so job, you can spend your time reaching for that next, better job.

I need to remind myself not to be afraid of positive change. I can adapt.


  1. Living in a deployed location (communal showers 300 meters from your bunk, living in tents in 45 degree Celsius heat, working 18 hour shifts, etc.) constantly reminds me how adaptable humans are. Most people here wouldn’t say they’re happy all the time, but there are definitely moments of happiness: pickup softball games, getting together with friends for dinner after a long day, and of course, some ice cream occasionally. Never be afraid of change: embrace it.

  2. On this topic of “financial freedom” and how to escape from anything that is keeping you confined, such as soul destroying corporate America, Martha Beck, the lead columnist for O Magazine, has just written a great blog post called “Get Out of Jail”:

    She recommends seeing Anthony Hopkins latest movie “Instinct” as a metaphor of how to set yourself free and live.

  3. Just a note that the 60k level has been upped to 70k the past year or so.

  4. I’d like to meet the people who aren’t happier above 60k. I grew up poor. Most I made was 16k until I went to college at almost 30. Believe me, I’m happier now.

  5. @Will: I think the study means that once you get up to an income of $60,000…any increase in happiness is negligible. From $16,000 to $60,000, yes there is absolutely an increase in happiness.

    As for the adaptation concept, I have heard about it in regards to people with disabilities and it’s an interesting theory. I think it’s true that people adapt quickly…but it works both ways. Alot of people try to keep up with the Joneses because once you adapt to a new level of happiness, you need more to increase that level of happiness.

  6. Great post! And a good reminder….I was just talking with someone about this.

  7. Very interesting topic, thank you for sharing this insight on financial freedom and happiness.

    I started out reading for this kind of advice and your blog for advice on financial freedom. Now it seems like the two are merging. Beautiful.

    You might want to do a guest post on Zenhabits some time 🙂

  8. Adapting is what gets us through a lot of tough situations. Animals adapt, but a lot of times it takes generations before they truly adapt. Humans, on the other hand, are amazing at finding a way to make it through almost any scenario.

  9. I’m 3 months into a move from the US to Australia and definitely learning about my adaptability. On one hand, it’s been a mostly smooth transition and Melbourne is an amazing city, so there aren’t huge challenges. The interesting part was the ‘limbo period’ in which I was living out of suitcases for a couple months while most of my stuff was on a boat. I enjoyed aspects of that, and some things I really missed, but I knew it was temporary.

    I think some of this has to do with personality and what your passions are. As an example, I’m a bit of an audiophile and shipped a bunch of audio equipment over, but I could be happy for a long time with just a great set of headphones. However, no access to music would suck and I doubt I would ever stop wanting it.

    In fact, I’m not attached to most of my physical possessions, but the internet and some constantly evolving set of gadgets, are my gateways to all my memories and the rest of the world. I don’t think I’d want to ‘adapt’ to not having those, at least not for long. The nice thing is, these things are super portable and nearly ubiquitous, so they allow for all kinds of scenarios that would have otherwise been undesirable. Living in the future is great! 🙂

  10. Yeah,a lot of people don’t want change. But I’s a part of life and it would be more interesting if we are not afraid to change and just let ourselves adapt to it.

  11. I spent two years in a foreign country on a religious mission. Believe me adapting can be very hard, and I was young. Some things are easy and you adapt with no thought. I never did get to the point where a bath was satisfying and a shower not missed. Never did get used to never having a decent pizza or ice cream.

  12. thepotatohead says:

    I think we can certainly adapt quickly to new situations, especially if we are forced into it. I probably wouldnt want to live in a place without beef, television and cell phone but if I was forced to I would probably learn to like fish and do alot of reading or interact more personally with people.

  13. “It is not the strongest of the species who survives nor the wealthiest but the one most adaptable to change”

  14. Interesting and thought provoking as to our ability to adapt. I guess the point is that we can change and adapt to new situations and that we should not be locked in to our ideas and situation. Things change so we must do this.
    As an aside, I am not sure I could have lived under those conditions unless I had no choice to do so. I am too old and spoiled.

  15. @sansrx – I was going to add that as well, but apparently that quote is incorrectly attributed to Darwin. They actually have a bounty on finding the true source of this quote.

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